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July 04, 2010

Sunday Book Thread: Biographies

I'm not a big fan of biography as a rule. Autobiographies tend to be little more than excuse-making and myth-building, while straight bios always seem to have some ideological axe to grind -- this is most true, inevitably, of biographies of political figures.

I also find biographies of actors or artists or musicians to be amazingly boring and trite. Few of them have lived lives of any distinction; most, in fact, seem to be angling for notoriousness rather than virtue. The whole point of these sorts of books seems to be the juicy relevatory bits: who they've slept with, what drugs they've done, whom they've cheated and been cheated by...I don't find much that is uplifting or even interesting in such things.

Still, over the years I've come across several biographies that I think are very worthwhile.

Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel, led a chaotic and quite fractured life. David Herbert Donald (who also did a superb biography of Abraham Lincoln) write a biography of him called Look Homeward. The book surprised me by being fascinating: Donald is able to make a pretty bizarre and rather unlikeable guy into a fascinating character-study.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow is another example of a book that makes a rather unpleasant man into an interesting story. Rockefeller's reputation has a hard-assed businessman is only true up to a point -- he was a real character, and was quite a kind man in many ways, and a philanthropist.

I also recently picked up a biography of the blind guitarist Doc Watson called Blind But Now I See by Kent Gustavson. Doc was my first "guitar hero", and it was because of him that I was motivated to take up the guitar to begin with. I've been a fan for nearly my entire life, and this book fills in the background of the man I admire so much. I was gratified to see that Doc is as humble and sweet in his private life as he is up on stage. It's rare that a person gets more impressive to me when I read their background: they usually end up being womanizers, drug-abusers, liars, thieves, whatever. But not Doc. He is that wonderful rarity in modern life -- a man who is just as kind and religious and generous and talented in his private life as he is on stage. The book isn't a hagiography (or at least I didn't find it to be one); rather, the man himself doesn't require a hagiography. He has lived an exemplary and interesting life.

I'd also recommend Bird & Sherwin's biography of Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer's involvement with the US atomic-bomb project during World War II is always the centerpiece of books about him, but this book explores both his earlier and later career, especially his later pacifism. There is a bit of conspiracy-theorizing about a group of men (including Lewis Strauss) who worked to marginalize and demonize Oppenheimer in later years, but the fact is that Oppenheimer himself was quite self-destructive in his behavior and relationships. This book is a good insight into a very complex man, and the time in which he lived.

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posted by Monty at 08:32 AM

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