Monday 19 October 2009

How To Save A Life

There is a pile of books by one of my bookcases - actually, there are many piles of books by most of my bookcases - but there is one in particular which holds all the books I've recently read, but haven't yet blogged about. They go in that pile, waiting for me to exert myself enough to write a proper review, and I promptly forget nearly everything about them. Not an auspicious way to start a review, I know, but I like it when bloggers give little insights into the geography of their books...

I think Oxford University Press's A Very Short Introduction series is a great idea, though I must say it's not one I've investigated closely. They have these books, about A6 size, covering more or less every topic conceivable - Autism to Particle Physics; topics as wide as History and as specific as The Dead Sea Scrolls; Animal Rights, Machiavelli, Free Speech, Emotion... even, intriguingly, one called Nothing. You get the picture. I must admit, my only previous dalliance with this series was Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory, much bought by panicking finalists - and it wasn't particularly good. Too fuzzy, and asked a lot of questions rather than giving much of use. I suppose it depends how you interpret 'Introduction' - it should send you off to find out more, but I feel it should also give you an understanding of key terms and central ideas.

Which is pretty m
uch what A Very Short Introduction to Biography by Hermione Lee does, thankfully. In 140pp (plus thirty odd of notes and index) Lee gives a whistle-stop tour of biography's vogues, peaks, ideas, and stars. She kicks off by looking at various metaphors for biography, trying to understand the impulse for telling the stories of lives, and the ethics of it. Then by going through 'ten rules for biography' (The story should be true, the biographer should be objective, etc. etc.) she demonstrates how often the rules are broken, and ends the list with no concrete definition at all. Which is perhaps to be expected.

From here we look
at the various vogues biography has experienced - exemplary lives, from the Bible and before, through increasingly 'honest' (read: critical) biographies, to the type we expect today. Freud's influence is examined - even the most anti-Freudian is likely now to use his language of childhood trauma, dreams, and so forth. More or less every aspect of biography is touched upon - the attempts of the Dictionary of National Biography and others to collate biographical information; the aesthetic arguments against even attempting biography; even the ways in which Marilyn Monroe has been treated.

It's all there, then, or
at least it's introduced. It is, if you like, a biography of biography. So why did the book not really work? No, I need to phrase myself better, because the book did *work* to a large extent - why didn't I love it? What prevented all these fascinating facts and angles from making a captivating 'life'? I think, mostly, because it is quite dry. The style is teacher-y; the occasional verbal tricks felt like they'd work in a lecture, but perhaps not in a book. I wasn't counting, but I think 'V.S. Pritchett's fine short Life of Turgenev' might have been the only evaluative comment made. And Lee only elliptically mentions her own life as a biographer, which would surely have been of interest - it is after all, one presumes, the reason she was asked to write this. She states, for example, 'Biographers are often asked what effect the superseding of letters by email and texting will have on their work' - an interesting question, which I don't think she ever attempts to answer. A hundred other times I'd have loved to hear what *she* experienced as a biographer... but maybe that would be a very different sort of book, and most of her audience might have resented it.

Perhaps the problem is the comparison with what I was hoping for. If I had set out to get a pocket outline of the history of biography, then I'd be happy. Lee's research is vast, her selection of angles intelligent. What is missing (what can so often accidentally slip out of a biography, whatever the number of facts and stories) is humanity. A Very Short Introduction to Biography is a very good resource, an excellent introduction, but you won't find yourself curling up in bed with it.


  1. I've read 4 or 5 books in the series and I quite enjoyed them all. I know what you mean about the tone being a little lecture-y at times, though.

  2. I'm fascinated by biography, so maybe this would be a good book for me -- a history of it would be fun, I think. Perhaps you would like Hermione Lee's book Virginia Woolf's Nose? It's a little more varied and more exciting than it sounds like this one is.


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