Speaking Biographically 31 May, 2023 – Posted in: Articles, Books – Tags: Biographies, Books, Opinion, Reading
Biographies – and autobiographies – are polarizing subjects. Readers usually either adore or hate them. People who adore them find the ‘real’ lives of the biography’s subject is what engages them. They seek answers they have about the subject. They are curious about lives other than their own. Those who despise biographies, well, you are missing out. Biographies are essential reading.
I think the dislike for biographies comes down to fear. A fear that the ‘story’ of someone’s life will be dull and uniteresting, for instance. That the prose will have no flow and that the reader will be unable to immerse themselves in the book. Or perhaps that the book will be a litany of bragging about the accomplishments of the subject. Only in very few cases is this partial or all true.
Good biographers write about their subjects with a critical eye for ‘untruth’. Anecdotes, if included are as amusement only, offering a highlight to what is apocraphal. A good biography dosen’t include facts or events that are questionable or untrue. It would just diminish the book.
There can be terrible biographies. The worst ones are written just to support a trend. You’ve seen the ones that appear on the shelves, mushroom-like, covering someone suddenly famous only to disappear when their fame has subsided. The best ones become reference material for later works and discussion.
Also, there is also the fear the biographies are dull and scholarly. This does occasionally happen, but not as often as you might think. A great biography can be as exciting as any novel with the added realisation that the events unfolding actually happened. Furthermore, the events can be verified through other sources. You can’t do that with the latest Steven King. Not usually.
Reading biographies can allow the reader to know a person more intimately than they might have thought possible. Condsider social media. We can follow people and read and listen to what they say 24 hours day, but do you really know them any better? No, that can just be fodder for mass consumption to produce the largest number of clicks. A talented biographer, however, can cut through the chaff to find the grains of truth, whether the subject wants it or not.
Finally, biographies can also make you rethink how you view world events. Reading the story of someone who experienced events lets you understand the hows, whys, and wherefores of our world and its workings. Biographies often get into the cracks of events overlooked by journalists and historians.
To this end I would like to recommend my own favourite biographies in no particular order:
- I, Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov
- Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jonathan R. Eller
- A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff
- Mary Shelley: A Biography by Muriel Spark
- London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
For those of you who have been reluctant to read biographies I hope you will reconsider your thinking and pick one up soon. For those of you who already know the pleasure of biographies, pass one on to someone today. You will be doing them a favour.