In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Penguin Books released a series of short biographies of great writers written by contemporary masters, which are fantastic not only because these lives are condensed into a tight, digestible size, but mostly because the biographers are themselves wonderfully gifted writers. Edmund White’s Marcel Proust and Jane Smiley’s Charles Dickens are by far by favorites of this bunch.
In 2003, Mónica Maristain interviewed Roberto Bolaño for Playboy, not realizing that it would be his last. When she heard he died (the very month her interview was published), she decided to find out what Bolaño’s friends, family, and fellow writers thought of him. The result is a book that is both biography and testimony, the story of a life told mostly by those orbiting it, not unlike the oral history in his novel The Savage Detectives.
Caroline de Margerie
Susan Mary Alsop is not a household name; rather, she was an extremely well-known name among many of those who would be considered household names—Evelyn Waugh, Winston Churchill, Christian Dior, and Henry Kissinger among them. Though she was not a writer herself, Alsop was an influential person among many major artists and decision-makers of recent history, and her story, as told by Caroline de Margerie, is as idiosyncratically American and as quintessentially 20th century as you can possibly get.
I challenge anyone to read the virtuosic prologue to Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex, the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s two terms as President, and not see how amazingly it would translate into an HBO-type TV series. The book opens with the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, and Roosevelt, suddenly thrust into the Presidency, travels by train from the Adirondacks to Washington, D.C. Through this journey, the reader is expertly introduced to all the major players and themes, as well as given a portioned view of the U.S. at the time.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story
D. T. Max
Max’s absorbing biography of David Foster Wallace traces the writer’s life from his upbringing in Illinois to his widespread notoriety after publishing his magnum opus Infinite Jest to his tragic suicide at the age of 46. Full of spot-on insights and fascinating anecdotes, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a nimble and entertaining work of biographical art.
The Ministry of Truth
One kind of particularly fascinating biography is one that isn’t about a person but a cultural artifact, as in Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth, which traces the history of George Orwell’s seminal and hugely influential novel 1984. Learn about the book’s creation as well as the life it has taken on beyond the life of its author.
Edward Said was one of the most important scholars of the 20th century. His books, like Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism set the standard for what became known as postcolonial studies. Biographer Edde had a friendship with Said, lending her book a personal touch on top of its intellectual acuity.
Looking for Lorraine
Although best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry was also a passionate advocate for Black and gay rights, a dedicated reporter, and an influential thinker, all accomplished in only 34 years. Perry’s in-depth biography enlightens those who only know Hansberry’s play, showing just how young and gifted she was, and how much more she could have done.
Conan Doyle for the Defense
Another interesting type of biography is one focused on a single event. In the case of Margalit Fox’s Conan Doyle for the Defense, that event is the wrongful conviction of Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant for whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, outraged by the man’s tragic situation, advocated and eventually freed. Through this incident, we get a rounded portrait of one of the foremost minds of detective fiction and, apparently, reality.
Look, I understand that in some fundamental way, one’s interest in a biography cannot be completely divorced from one’s interest in the subject. So, unlike other forms of literary art, even biographies of wide acclaim don’t necessarily presume a large readership outside of the already converted. Despite knowing this, I’m just going to say it: for the most part, biographies are really boring—and here’s the kicker—even when the subject is of great importance to me. I’ve picked up lengthy tomes on some of my favorite writers, only to find myself drowning in the banal minutia of ancestors and hometown history and childhood development. Get to the part, I think, where they accomplish the things that made me want to read a biography about them in the first place!
The reason I’m complaining at all is because I really love a good biography. So when I come across ones that hold my attention—or even rivet it, in some cases—I’m profoundly appreciative of its author. Biographies are a vital art, but not all are as artful as they are useful, and you need the art to compel readers through to the utility. Here are several biographies that not only provide intelligent commentaries on their subjects’ lives but also function as fascinating and engrossing works of literature.
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