Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reading lives...

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Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

Memoirs can be wonderful. To hear the writing voice of someone you know for something else, acting or politics, and to see what it is they choose to show of themselves can be very revealing. Alec Guiness has written a couple of wonderful volumes about himself, as has writer May Sarton and I love publisher Katherine Graham's Personal History. I also love reading letters or journals - painter Emily Carr, composer Ned Rorem, and actor John Geilgud all come to mind. The journals of Victor Klemperer are an amazing history of the Nazi's infiltration of German life kept day by day. I find them particularly interesting when the writing makes me think that they were not intended for publication. These form an autobiography of sorts that's an analogue of a candid photo as compared to a studio portrait. Ghost written autobiorgraphies really depend on the quality of the ghost writer. Superstar-of-the-moment books obviously mass produced to sell as many copies as possible hold no interest for me. Great biographies are a favorite genre of mine. David McCullough's biography of John Adams is a masterpiece and I remember loving Merle Miller's oral biography of Harry Truman. I have Simon Callow's two volumes about Orson Welles from my friend Sheila sitting on the top of the pile for a time I get enough brain space to dive into them. While I enjoy a mammoth toe-nail-clippings-and-all biography, I have a special admiration for the succinct telling of a life with a specific angle. The one that rapidly comes to mind is Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidders' masterful portrait of physician Paul Farmer. An inspiring book if there ever was one. I'm aware in it that a writer has choosen to write a particular story in a particular way, the life that is the subject does not entirely engulf the work of art that is the book, if that makes any sense.

I'll try to add links to this post this evening, right now I'm late for Grand Rounds!


Anonymous said...

You obviously like autobiographies and biographies. Perhaps you can persuade me to get into them?!

Unknown said...

I've just added the John Adams biography to my TBR short stack so I'll be starting it sometime this weekend.

I've long been curious about the Klemperer journals. Do you think journals should get their own category, maybe a subset of autobiographies?