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Books By the book


Frates Seeligson Sr. is reading his way through history ... from the beginning

Frates Seeligson Sr. and his grandson, Tate.

When John Alaniz defeated State Representative Frates Seeligson Sr. in 1960, he earned two nicknames. One was "Landslide Alaniz," for the razor-thin 92-vote margin of victory. The other was "the Giant Killer," a reference to the perceived invincibility of the four-term incumbent, perhaps uttered with humor because Seeligson, while politically and socially formidable - he is a fifth-generation San Antonian whose flamboyant brother, the late Arthur Seeligson, owned the 1975 Belmost Stakes winner - is a man of very modest stature. What does tower is Seeligson's intellect and his library: shelves upon shelves of books that, unlike many dust- and silverfish-afflicted collections, is being read methodically. Since his 30s, Seeligson has followed a self-made plan to read his way chronologically through world and American history, while enjoying books on public policy, sensual topics such as shad and caviar, and fiction. "I try to average four books a month," he told me, holding up a yellow legal pad filled with pages of titles, many scratched off. "So at the end of six months, I've read 24 books."

Seeligson insists modestly that many people read more than he does, but we think not many read as comprehensively. He visited with the Current in his pleasant, and yes, book-filled, offices near Brackenridge Park.

Frates Seeligson: I decided that I would put some sort of cohesion into my reading and so, for example, here is the list of all the books I'm going to read until I get to the Civil War. Right now I'm in the presidential era of Zachary Taylor and Millard Filmore, which is 1848-1852, and, of course, it's not just the presidential part that you read. You read about the various people - I'll kill off Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun during that time. You have the Gold Rush at that time, which is very interesting. You read books on the Mormons. Then I read books about Mexico and South America. Overall you read a great many books.

And you're putting it all into a larger context, whereas often people focus on just one aspect of history.

When I was young I just started to do that, and I was lucky because the older you get your mind isn't as retentive, so you have to read about the same subject three or four times before you can remember it.

I think parenthood exacerbates that.

(Laughs) Well all I know I was a very lucky with my children, although occasionally they exasperated me. I don't think it's the reason for the decay in the gray matter.

Is there a number of books at which you top out on a subject?

Awful rarely. And that's a terrible affliction. Lots of times you spend too much time on a boring book and then, of course, just like finding a good teacher it's rare to find a really super book - particularly a history book - that you can't lay down.

A lot of historians nowadays write overtly from an ideological perspective. Does that seem to have always been the case?

No. You read some of the older history books, particularly in English history, and I think they're much `more` magnificent in their choice of words because they're not trying to take a political standpoint so much. I think sometimes people weaken the text by trying to prove too much. Right now I think that Fehrenbach suffers a little bit because - I'm just reading his book on Comanches - and he's brutal but fair, and I don't think people want authors to be brutal; they want them just to glorify their subjects.

Is there something in particular that you have learned about American history in general that you didn't know before?

Oh, lots, lots. It's interesting because you read three or four histories of Sam Houston, and people will fall in love with their subjects and they will neglect to mention a flaw. But then the next guy isn't so much in love and he'll tell you about the flaw.

So you're creating mental composite pictures of these historical figures from all these various sources.

That's right, and I think it helps you a lot because it not only reinforces in your mind what actually went on but I think it fills out the character much better by seeing it from four or five different angles, from hero worship to being a little bit critical.

Is there a particular time period in American history that you're really itching to get to?

Well, I'd really like to get to the Civil War and I look forward to that. But all of it's interesting, so I find that some of the people that you don't hear much about during that time were pretty able politicians, like Millard Filmore. People just giggle and laugh when you mention his name, but he wasn't too bad. Of course, it was the time of the big fight over slavery and a lot of these people like Filmore and Daniel Webster, they put up with slavery to save the union and so they've been very criticized for that, but they had a point.

How many hours per day do you spend reading, ideally?

Ideally, I like to read early in the morning when your mind is fresh. You read two or three books at one time, so you could start out in the morning with a fairly ponderous tome and then you could end up with a humorous book before you go to bed.

Who are some of the novelists you've enjoyed?

Mark Twain was a wonderful author; PG Wodehouse, that was another one that I enjoyed thoroughly. Trolloppe. All those, but in recent years I've found out that I've bought all these books with short stories and I decided that I needed to address myself to those, too. And so I've waded through a lot of ghost stories and horror stories and things along those lines.

So you never stop reading a book and say, I'm not really getting anything out of it?

Very rarely. But as I said, that's an affliction. You should do that.

You should put them down?

I think you should do it, but I can't.

Ian McEwan said recently he just doesn't feel he's in good hands with a lot of contemporary novelists.

I don't read so many contemporary novels; that's my trouble. Martita and I, my wife, we like to drive and we like to listen to detective stories on the tapes and I like that.

Do you have a favorite gumshoe?

Yeah, I like Kate Scarpetta, and then Tony Hillerman, who writes about New Mexico. And the Andromeda Strain author is pretty good.

You have done this all mathematically. You break things down into fours and sixes.

The reason I brought that up to you is because if you're interested in how I read - I try to average four books a month, and so at the end of six months, I've read 24 books. And so I break it down: I've read six books on fiction, six books on American history, three books on African history, three books on public affairs. So then I have six more books and I have made a list of all - not all the books - the majority of books I have yet to read. And so I go back and read the book that's the oldest that I haven't read. And then I'm (also) reading books on the origin of man. I've read a lot of books on that - that would be my second one. The third one would be a book on any subject. And then a book on fishing, and then another book on any subject. I think I mentioned `the next one is` gonna be on caviar.

Have you read John McPhee? He wrote a book on shad not too long ago.

I've got it, but I haven't read it. I've got shad, and I've got cod that I'm eventually gonna get to.

So you're reading about the origin of man right now? Do you favor evolution?

Yes, I do. No disrespect to those other books I have there on the list. What do you think about these hearings they're having up in Kansas for intelligent design?

It's difficult for me to see how you can discount evolution given the evidence.

I think that if that's how `intelligent design proponents` feel, if it gives them comfort, that's fine.

Does Martita read as much as you do?

She reads a lot, but she has a whole lot more to do than I do, so there's no way she could read as much as I do, because if she read as much as I do, then I'd have to be doing the things that she does (laughs).

Since the time you began this system, do you know roughly how many books you've read?

Well, I showed you those lists of 26. I've read those lists now twice, so that's over 200 books that way, and that's just on the short stories. I just hope I get into the Civil War, that's all. And then on my ancient and medieval, I'm in medieval and I'm just getting ready to finish out the Crusades.

When you hear people discussing public affairs, do you find yourself wanting to say, Well, actually, 600 years ago ...

I try to avoid that unless pressed because the last thing you want to do is be known as the nerd. But I'd most likely correct people. I used to be in politics, and Martita says that every now and then she knows something's wrong because I address the mirror while I'm shaving.