Saturday, January 31, 2009

Biographies


Reading on subway.











My bookshelves are filled with biographies that I haven't read. I used to be a great biography reader but somehow as biographies have gotten longer, my attention span or interest in minutiae has receded. I think there is a great art in writing one the proper length. I think most lives can be covered in 300 pages unless the work is meant for scholars.

I recently read The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved. I found this one the right length and very absorbing despite it focusing almost exclusively on his marriage. She brought it to life through traveling to the many, and I mean many, houses the Chandlers lived in over the course of their marriage.

Girls Like Us is giving me trouble though. Do I really need to know when each of these women met all the other song writers/singers in this era? I expected the book to focus on the era more too. And it's too long. Too many dull details. If you're going to write about three people, I'd eliminate some of the less important information.

Prize for the dullest biography I ever read would be the one about Joyce Carol Oates (Invisible Writer). Not the biographer's fault though. Oates never does anything but write.

But maybe it's me and my every diminishing attention span. What biographies have you enjoyed?

19 comments:

George said...

I had the same reaction to GIRLS LIKE US that you had. Way too many dull details. I just finished reading Peter Martin's SAMUEL JOHNSON. Very well done.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My favorite "life" was an autobiography. Miller's TIMEBENDS. I think autos are sometimes better than bios because when writing about himself, a writer might not feel the need to document every fact of his life.

Clair Dickson said...

I think researchers have an unfortunate tendency to think that every bit of research they dug up is necessary for the book. Or maybe it's because they don't want a single morsel of the information they found to go to waste by not being included.

Too much such reading in college kind of turned me off for fear of finding more such books. Though, I did find Letter Perfect to be a truly fascinating book on the history of the Alphabet.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Non-fiction can be more interesting than biographies often.

Cullen Gallagher said...

I've always enjoyed Charlotte Chandler's film biographies (Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, Bette Davis). Lots of charming and vivid anecdotes, and she doesn't bore you with the same old information that is reprinted elsewhere. She tries to bring something new to the table, and that makes the books interesting even for long-time fans of her subjects.

Lisa said...

I've got GIRLS LIKE US here gathering dust too...

It seems I went through a brief period where I enjoyed several biographies in a row, but they were about people like Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Janis. I don't think I've read very many biographies on politicians or historical figures.

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to read biographies of only three types, writers, soldiers, or heavy metal musicians.

Kent Morgan said...

While it's not really a biography, I just finished George, Being George, a look at George Plimpton's life from the perspective of 200 friends, relatives, writers, rivals, etc. I expected more than what I got for $34 Canadian. No doubt someone will take a shot at a biography in the future.

Scott Parker said...

David McCullough's Truman and John Adams read like fiction. Brilliant books. Ron Chernow's bio of Alexander Hamilton was also good. Joseph Ellis's multi-bio, Founding Brothers, also reads like fiction but has, as its theme, something quite extraordinary. And the third volume of Robert Caro's LBJ biography, Master of the Senate, brought the complex and mundane legislative process to life.

Dana King said...

I was about to put in a plug for McCullough's TRUMAN, but Scott beat me to it. Highly recommended.

I confess to not reading a lot of biography, and prefer non-fiction, as it can provide a detailed account of a person's life, or at least a key part of it, in better context. An excellent example, again by McCullough, is THE GREAT BRIDGE, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which also serves as a fine biography of Roebling family who built it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I love the presidential bios on CD on a long trip. We did Master of the Senate that way. Although my husband finds lots to criticize-being neither an Adams or a Truman fan.
I love the Hollywood bios. And some writers make great subject. I think I read three of the ones on Fitzgerald for instance-although I can only remember Arthur Mizener(?) at the moment. The Ross MacDonald one of a few years ago was good. And the one on Richard Yates was a heartbreaker.

David Cranmer said...

Scott AND Dana beat me to David McCullough's John Adams. Also Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. It's not technically a bio but it's the closest we have to Ernesto writing his story.

GB said...

I admit to not reading a lot of biographies, but I loved Joe Klein's biography of Woody Guthrie entitled WOODY GUTHRIE: A LIFE. You don't have to be a fan of his music - it's just a great story.

Greg

pattinase (abbott) said...

A Moveable Feast, a great one. My favorite Hemingway.
Woody Guthrie, huh? I should know more about him.

Todd Mason said...

I guess you should, Patti...a compelling figure...I'll take lots of details in my bios, as long as their well-organized...one has to intuit quite a lot while reading, say, Thurber's various memoirs, such as THE YEARS WITH ROSS. Isaac Asimov's two volumes were pretty interesting to me in part because he would delve into the process of his writing, moreso than most of the writers' autobios I'd read previously, which had managed to mostly skirt the actual writing for the social whirl, the heartbreaks, and then "and then I sat down to do my daily four pages" or "Bill and Jack looked up from the drafts as we came in."

There is an unfortunate tendency toward idolatry in biography by others, such as Doris K. Goodwin's works.

Todd Mason said...

And "their" readable...reedibul.

Todd Mason said...

I found INVISIBLE WRITER pretty useful, but I was writing a survey of her career for a cyclopedia at the time. It did give some telling detail about her youth.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Great point about the Goodwin style and that's what irks my husband.

Todd Mason said...

Would that she was alone, as opposed to the most egregious example of great popularity of late.