Friday, October 7, 2011

True Story

I had an unusual form of disappointment this afternoon.  On my lunch break, I caught a few moments of a local NPR show called Nancy's Bookshelf.  Nancy Wiegman interviews authors who either live in the area (usually having written things like The Conifers of Bidwell Park) or who are passing through (authors who are squeezing in an extra book tour stop between Sacramento and Portland.)

This week's guest was Professor Jonathan Steinberg who has written a 600 page biography of Otto von Bismark.  It is not a subject I would normally have pursued left to my own devices, but the author was passionately informative during the interview and I love furthering my education.  In short, he really sold it, at least as far as I was concerned.  Then came the point in the interview where Nancy asked Professor Steinberg what brought him to Chico and he replied that he was here to do a book signing.  I suddenly became very excited realizing that I had off this evening.  I rushed home to Google the details of the time and place of the book signing, only to find that the interview had been recorded in April.  It was as though the radio said, "Hey, Paul, here's something you really would have enjoyed but missed a long time ago on account of not knowing it was going to happen."

But that's not really what I came here to write about.  I came to write about a thought experiment sparked by a comment from Professor Steinberg on the Genesis of his biography.  He said that he was approached and asked who he would write a biography about had he the opportunity.  He instantly responded "Bismark" who seems to have been a figure of some fascination for him throughout his life.  The difference between me and the professor is that he then went on to be permitted to write a biography which was published by a major publishing house with the expected admirable remuneration for such an effort.

The hypothetical in my mind and kicked around at our dinner table this evening is "How would I respond were I asked that question?"  My initial immediate response was "Glenn Gould" although it strikes me that there are already an awful lot of books available on that subject.  Which lead me to think about biography in general.

My experiences with biography have given occasion to note the vast array of types and styles of biography.  Some are highly academic, some are highly popular (both of which I've found can turn off readers if they oscillate too far in either direction.)  Some raise the subject to heroic, godlike proportions while others are nothing more than character assassinations (again, both of which blah blahdy blah.)  Some offer a unique perspective from the biographer (longtime readers of this blog will remember my review of Detmar Blow's biography of his wife Isabella Blow.)

Some of the more sucessful and engaging focus on a specific attribute.  I recall a wonderful biography of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec which posited the thesis that Lautrec's work was highly political in spite of our modern perception of it being all dancing girls and circuses.  Some other successful biographies I've found focus on a figure involved in a notable historical instance, but who for one reason or another have not been in the forefront enough to have previously thought to merit a whole biography.  I remember being highly moved by a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas.

Another form of biography I enjoy depends on the skill and verisimilitude of the author.  That is to say when a biographer seeks to explore a figure in history about whom we know very little.  I have a whole shelf in the other room devoted to such books about William Shakespeare.  I thought perhaps I would like to write a biography of Socrates.

And there are the great tomes which become widely viewed as "The Authoritative."  One of my favorites is one which perfectly balances the academic with readability.  Michael Schumacher wrote an 800 page stepstool of a biography about poet Allen Ginsberg called Dharma Lion which is among the most enriching experiences I have ever had in reading a biography.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  The only criticism I could possibly imagine to level against it is that it was written before the subject died and therefore leaves off the inevitable ending to all true stories.

Occasionally, but worthy of making the distinction, there also comes along "The One To Read" which can differ from "The Authoritative" or not.  The obvious example is James Gleick's incomparable biography of Richard Feynman, simply and appropriately titled Genius.  I do make the distinction because there are so many books by, about, and surrounding Feynman that are must reads.  This is the one that you buy a case of and hand out to everyone you know.

As Plutarch wrote, "To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days."  The impulse to read biography or historical accounts seems to stem from the human urge of seeking wisdom, learning from lessons that others have learned, and an attempt to glean the well-spring of greatness (or, in some cases, the cautionary tales) contained within the life of a world-historical figure.  Therefore, I feel that there is a sort of nobility and, indeed, hope in the popularity of biography.

As a fun diversion, how would you answer that question given the offer to research and pen a biography?

Oh, and by the way, you can listen to the full interview with Professor Steinberg here.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a big reader of biographies. I remember reading a biography of Lincoln and Stonewall Jackson in school. I read a bio of C.S. Lewis, and another of Tolkien in my 20s. And I think that's about it. I tend to be far more interested in people's work than in their lives.

    Dr. Johnson has caught my eye, however. I'm reading bits of Boswell's biography. Actually, I've only read the intro to it and a page or so of Boswell's introductory paragraphs. But, anyway...