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August 1, 2005

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The Unreliable Biographer


I’ve just finished reading my second biography this summer of a subject whom the biographer(s) claim is underrepresented in the history books. (The other.)

This latest book was well-paced, thoroughly footnoted, and boasted a very well-respected author. Biographies often seem like they’re pasting together scattered shreds of the subject’s life to try to divine some pattern that isn’t there, and this one didn’t seem to do that too much.

But the entire time I was reading both books, I found myself questioning the authors’ claims that their subjects were unfairly sidelined by history. Not doubting, necessarily, just constantly refreshing a mental note that the authors have much to gain from inflating the person’s importance. This tendency probably isn’t helped by the fact that a third book I read this summer was a novel about two biographers chasing the life of an obscure but untalented singer whom they argue history overlooked.

So how do you gauge a person’s objective influence on history? The easy answer is to just read another biography of the same person or a related one. But then, after you traipse through 600 pages on someone’s life, are you really that excited about seeing the story retold one more time from another point of view?

Maybe it’s not important, and we should just enjoy the account of a fascinating life, aside from any question of its influence. But that’s no fun.

Posted August 1, 2005 at 9:47 | Comments (1) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such


You know, I've always felt that way about biography myself. (The whole after 600 pages of someone's life, never wanting to do it again.) Even when I'm terribly interested in something (and I'm going to use as an example my teenage interest in The Doors and Led Zeppelin), I want vast reams of information, and am constantly disappointed in how biographers in particular draw from each other's work so that out of the two books' combined 1200 pages, 1000-1100 are duplicated between the two books.

I find myself relating to The Joker (yes, the Batman villian, as quited from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, and no, I don't really love identifying with The Joker) when he says "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice."

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