In many ways, this is, to someone coming to it for the first time, a very surprising book. For one thing, it is amazingly incomplete. Franklin is, of course, one of the most famous Americans who ever lived, and his accomplishments in a wide array of endeavors are a part of American lore and popular history. A great deal of this lore and many of his accomplishments are missing from this account of his life. He never finished the autobiography, earlier in his life because he was too busy with what he terms public "employments," and later in life because the opium he was taking for kidney stones left him unable to concentrate sufficiently. Had Franklin been able to write about every period of his life and all of his achievements, his AUTOBIOGRAPHY would have been one of the most remarkable documents every produced. It is amazingly compelling in its incomplete state.
As a serious reader, I was delighted in the way that Franklin is obsessed with the reading habits of other people. Over and over in the course of his memoir, he remarks that such and such a person was fond of reading, or owned a large number of books, or was a poet or author. Clearly, it is one of the qualities he most admires in others, and one of the qualities in a person that makes him want to know a person. He finds other readers to be kindred souls.
If one is familiar with the Pragmatists, one finds many pragmatist tendencies in Franklin's thought. He is concerned less with ideals than with ideas that work and are functional. For instance, at one point he implies that while his own beliefs lean more towards the deistical, he sees formal religion as playing an important role in life and society, and he goes out of his way to never criticize the faith of another person. His pragmatism comes out also in list of the virtues, which is one of the more famous and striking parts of his book. As is well known, he compiled a list of 13 virtues, which he felt summed up all the virtues taught by all philosophers and religions. But they are practical, not abstract virtues. He states that he wanted to articulate virtues that possessed simple and not complex ideas. Why? The simpler the idea, the easier to apply. And in formulating his list of virtues, he is more concerned with the manner in which these virtues can be actualized in one's life. Franklin has utterly no interest in abstract morality.
One of Franklin's virtues is humility, and his humility comes out in the form of his book. His narrative is exceedingly informal, not merely in the first part, which was ostensibly addressed to his son, but in the later sections (the autobiography was composed upon four separate occasions). The informal nature of the book displays Franklin's intended humility, and for Franklin, seeming to be so is nearly as important as actually being so. For part of the function of the virtues in an individual is not merely to make that particular person virtuous, but to function as an example to others. This notion of his being an example to other people is one of the major themes in his book. His life, he believes, is an exemplary one. And he believes that by sharing the details of his own life, he can serves as a template for other lives.
One striking aspect of his book is what one could almost call Secular Puritanism. Although Franklin was hardly a prude, he was nonetheless very much a child of the Puritans. This is not displayed merely in his promotion of the virtues, but in his abstaining from excessiveness in eating, drinking, conversation, or whatever. Franklin is intensely concerned with self-governance.
I think anyone not having read this before will be surprised at how readable and enjoyable this is. I think also one can only regret that Franklin was not able to write about the entirety of his life. He was a remarkable man with a remarkable story to tell.