Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Biographies - do you or don't you?!


I've just got back from Book Group, where we discussed Dear Fatty by Dawn French. Not much to say about this autobiography - general consensus was that we expected it to be funny, and it wasn't much. Interesting in places, but mostly very guarded - and we were left wondering why she'd written it, since she seemed to hate revealing details about her life. But passed the time well enough...

But the reason I mention it is that the discussion acted as a springboard for today's post - since I seemed to be the only person there who read biographies and autobiographies. For some people, this was the first biography they'd ever read - and I was rather surprised. I don't read many, and the ones I do read tend to be by or about novelists, but I thought that every reader would pick up one now and then. It just seems logical, to me, if I've enjoyed an author's books - to go and read a bit about their life. Not to judge their fiction-writing based on their life, but just out of interest. And if it's not biographies, I always have some diaries or letters on the go (mostly because they're broken up in good bathroom-size sections...)

I thought this was the norm for people who read quite a lot of books - but was I wrong? Or perhaps I'm fooling myself - when I look at my reading in 2009, I see that I only read twelve books in the biography/autobiography/letters/memoirs category. But that's still a good 7 or 8% of my reads last year. And, having taken over a new bookcase on the landing at home with biographies etc., I know that I certainly own quite a few. It's a genre that's more or less impossible to recommend, because only the very best are of interest unless you're interested in the person already. Biographies/autobiographies worth reading regardless of your initial interest in the person include, in my opinion, Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith, anything by Claire Tomalin, It's Too Late Now by AA Milne, The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne. I'm sure there are others. (Links to posts on all of these can be found here).

Tell me I'm not alone in reading these sorts of books! What are you habits with biographies, and why? Let me know...

39 comments:

  1. I love reading biographies and I too tend to read biographies of authors. I am obsessed with reading anything about the Mitfords and I think I have read everything there is to read about them! I also like reading about members of the Bloomsbury Group (obviously given my blog name!) and I really enjoyed Karen Armstrong's autobiographies, Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase.

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  2. I love reading biographies and most of mine are usually about writers or historical figures. I tend to read anything I can lay my hands on about Queen Victoria, her children, her courtiers etc and each book has a different insight and view and are totally fascinating. I checked my reading for last year and worked out that I read one biography a month which I thought was pretty good going.

    Diaries and letters alongside a biography can also provide a different point of view as I discovered when reading a biography of LM Montgomery alongside her own journals.

    Though I read mostly fiction, I cannot imagine never reading non fiction or a biog at all. They add so much to one's enjoyment of an author's work - the more you know about them, the more you can appreciate the writing.

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  3. I love biographies! I've read many author bios, and my most recent aquisition was E. Gaskell's bio on Charlotte Bronte. After writers, I read mostly about "great men/women or martyrs of the Christian faith" e.g. Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, Corrie Ten Boom, etc. Next would be politicians - American and elsewhere. Lots of presidential bios, but of course, I read Fergie's book back when it came out. (I guess that would've been more sensational than political back in its day. ;) ) I also read bios of entertainers. I was fascinated by Julie Andrews Edwards bio, Home, that came out last year -- I was a child when Mary Poppins came out and I've been "singing with Julie" for years. :) Another fascinating bio that came out around the same time was Audition by Barbara Walters. She's met so many world leaders, etc. in her interviewing career, and again, she was a news icon from my childhood and still is over here.

    I should probably stop now lest I fill up the page! I do have to say that I think there is great value in reading biography -- so many things to be learned by those who have "gone before." (Okay, not so much the entertainers :) )
    Susan in TX

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  4. I don't think I read any biographies last year but I do normally read several a year. This year I intend to put that right by reading Douglas Botting's book on Gerald Durrell and Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann. Also want to read The Mitford Sisters if I can squeeze it in.

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  5. I enjoy (auto or not)biographies of actors and musicians who have been around for a while... I recommend Michael J. Fox's 'Lucky Man' for his excellent writing on Parkinson's. Unusually for an actor, he genuinely did write it himself, which makes it a far better read than otherwise.
    I would not recommend Roger Moore's 'My Word is My Bond', though. Ghost-written, and reveals him to be an infantile mercenary.

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  6. You are not alone. Out of the 119 books I read last year, 23 fell into the bio/autobio/letters/memoir category. The number is usually higher but I was renewing my love for fiction. If I fall in love with a new to me author, I immediately want to read everything about who they are (or were), so I will read any kind of biographical info I can whether in form of books or articles or internet websites. Then I also go through phases where I read nothing but books on food and cooking or classical music, etc. and then I will read a lot of bios and memoirs within those categories as well. So I guess that is my habit...I come across something new to me whether it is an author or whatever and then will read any kind of bio that is connected.

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  7. I love biographies - and journals! They aren't a significant portion of my reading, though, unless you're counting memoirs? I have to be extremely interested in a person to commit to reading a whole entire nonfiction book about him or her.

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  8. I don't read many biographies ... I have to be very interested in the person (usually authors or scientists) to want to know that much about their lives. I don't read memoirs really at all. I just don't feel I get much out of them.

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  9. Also a fan of biogs/autobiogs, particularly literary, political or historical ones.

    Of the 48 books read last year, 16 were in this category.

    Carol N

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  10. A good auto/biography tempts a different part of the appetite from that which fiction satisfies.

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  11. I'm a big fan of (auto)biog but my selection is usually based on what helps with research for novels. BLUE REMEMBERED HILLS by Rosemary Sutcliff is worth anyone's time even if they don't know her fiction. I also really enjoyed MEMORY IN A HOUSE by Lucy Boston, the children's author. Other chance but excellent finds have been THE LAST MAZURKA by Andrew Tarnowski, TITLE DEEDS by Liza Campbell and THE SUNLIGHT ON THE GARDEN by Elizabeth Speller. Alexander Masters' STUART- A LIFE BACKWARDS was one of the most brilliant books I ever read.

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  12. Ooh, I love biographies, although I have a slight preference for autobiographies, especially by writers - I love knowing about people behind the books.

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  13. Well, your book group was obviously unrepresentative since everyone here seems to read them avidly. I do, too, usually ones of authors. I've got one on the go at the moment, Frances Hodgson Burnett, jolly interesting.

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  14. I also love biographies and autobiographies - I mainly focus on writers or historical figures. I think, when it comes to literary biographies, they add a different level to reading an author's novels. When I've finished a novel I've particularly enjoyed, I often have a look for a biography of the author. I couldn't imagine not reading biographies - it is good to have a break from reading fiction all the time!!

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  15. I love biogs and memoirs, but don't read enough of them (8 last year). Mostly showbiz ones (but I'm very picky!) plus a few musicians and occasional literary ones.

    Currently dipping into the second volume of Michael Palin's diaries which are great. I also have several Mitford tomes waiting to be read.

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  16. I am hit and miss with biographies and autobiographies and would like to read more of them. I tend to go for ones about National Treasures like Julie Walters etc and then big ones on the Mitfords.

    I have to say I quite liked Dear Fatty, I found her childhood quite interesting, especially teh Queen Mum's visit.

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  17. I think it was C S Lewis who said that the most interesting part of any biography/autobiography was the childhood and my experience leads me to agree with him. I often lose interest and fail to finish these books. I think great skill is needed by the author of a life and this is not always present.

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  18. Simon I am not in general interested to read about the authors of books. I do read biographies of scientists, engineers and musicians.

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  19. I love journals and diaries and do read some biographies/autobiographies but mostly historical ones.
    I love the Mitford letters - and yes these are the sort of books that are kept in the bathroom or by my bed (because although I will read anywhere, I can rarely stay awake long enough to read more than a few paragraphs by the time I get to bed!

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  20. I do read biographies, autobiographies and memoires, although they do not make up the bulk of my reading. I tend to read ones about novelists, historical figures, and social history - I steer away from those about modern day 'celebrities'.

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  21. Biographies? Absolutely! I've been an information junkie since I was five years old and have sought out bio's since I was eight and learned about Helen Keller. People are fascinating!

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  22. I've always enjoyed biographies; I'm not sure why. Probably, as you said, it's just interesting to know more about authors (or others) whose work you've enjoyed.

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  23. Oh yes, autobiographies, memoirs and journals are high on my list of books to read, and because more writers than, say, scientists, write autobiographies (it's just their nature, isn't it), they're the ones I read most.

    Biographies not so much, because what interests me is the subject's view of their world and life and times, rather than the outward view in towards the subject.

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  24. I love this genre, especially autobiographies and journals. Add me to the fans of all things Mitford. I especially enjoy the journals of those living through an exciting time in history-- such as WWII.

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  25. Thanks for recommending Blue Remembered Hills (Linda Gillard) as I loved Rosemary Sutcliffe's books. I liked Bill Bryson's Shakespeare, Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs (start out a bit sad, then very funny)
    and Charlotte Bronte's letters though they are very sad as they include those to her Belgian teacher, who was married and did not respond when she fell in love with him - good background for Villette.

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  26. I love biographies, and even went so far as to do a degree in them! My major collection entails the lives of writers (and I love Claire Tomalin) but also, I really like biographies about different historical figures, although I wouldn't touch Alison Weir with a 10 foot barge pole!
    I read fewer biographies than I did, because they take up so much time, but I do love them!

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  27. I love reading diaries and letters, but am not at all interested in biographies and memoirs.

    What I love about diaries and letters is that they are written in the "here and now", while memoirs look back and biographies not only look back but are written by people who, as "outsiders", have to make conjectures about their subject.

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  28. I was interested in Jeanette Wells book, "The Glass Castle," about her childhood. She also wrote a novel/biography about her grandmother, "Half Brok Horses."

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  29. I am johnny come lately and may have missed a discussion of the following books. I was interested in Jeanette Wells "The Glass Castle," about her childhood and her novel/biography, "Half Broke Horses."

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  30. I love them, read lots of letters & diaries as well. Mostly writers & historical subjects. I usually race through the childhood chapters to get to the really interesting chapters on adult life & love & how they wrote their books or did whatever they were famous for.

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  31. I'm the same, Simon. As you say, if I enjoy a writer's books then it seems logical to read about their life too - and is it just a coincidence, or do most writers seem to have lives that are much more interesting than the norm?

    I am using the library more and more, though it is nice to have the biography on your shelves so you can look up some half-remembered detail.

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  32. My mother was an inveterate reader of auto/biography, and I got the habit very young through reading her library books. I'll nearly always read a biography of a writer I like, and am also fond of diaries and letters. Autobiography and memoir I find less enjoyable, and I also tend to prefer the subject to be dead, as it makes for greater frankness.

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  33. Like most of those commenting, I do read biographies and autobiographies - mostly about to find out more about people/eras I'm interested in. Probably just nosiness when you get down to it.

    If you want an interesting pairing of biographies, try two takes on E Nesbit, using the same background material, but telling the story very differently because of what was acceptable at time of publication - E Nesbit: A biography, Doris Langley Moore(1933)and A woman of passion, Julia Briggs (1989)

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  34. I read the occasional autobiography but find myself increasingly avoiding actual biographies, I don't think there's any real reason for it though. I love diary and letter collections - I find them very handy when I'm in a reading rut as they normally get me back into an actual book.

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  35. I love biographies, mostly of authors and historical figures of note, usually royalty, or people like the wonderful Mitfords, society belles, you know the sort - and, like Bloomsbury Bell, I loved Karen Armstrong's autobiographies. I quite like autobiographical novels, too. I don't read them that frequently, but that's mostly due to the length and heaviness of them. I do most, if not all of my reading on the tube and train and I can't lug a biography around with me so they have to wait for holidays and other times of houseboundness.

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  36. I have just thought of an autobiography I found interesting - Gabriel Garcia Marquez' first one, Living to Tell the Tale. I had read his novels and thought he imagined the unlikely stories. However quite a lot of them are true! It also gave me an idea of what living in Colombia was like - a country I hardly knew anything about except for drug warfare. A fantastically varied country which I would like to visit one day.

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  37. I read a lot of biographies of scientists for my studies and a lot of writers and artists for my own pleasure. For me it's fascinating to find out more about the person behind the things I like, be it books, paintings or scientific theories, and to see how they were influenced by the social milieu in which they worked.

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  38. I like historical figures, literary sorts and lots of memoirs (depending on topic). Alison Weir writes a good historical bio, Hermione Lee of course does literary bios well, and Claire Tomalin also.

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  39. I don't read them often but I have read biographies. It has to be of someone I really have an interest in learning more about which isn't very many people. I'm not celebrity crazy.

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