Friday, April 13, 2007

Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography

On six successive Monday nights in the cold early months of 1985, six noted biographers lectured in the Trustees Room of the New York Public Library. What they said about their work and the literary form is reproduced in Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, slightly edited by William Zinsser to make the lectures more readable.

The lineup was great:

"The Unexpected Harry Truman" by David McCullough

"In Search of Emily Dickinson" by Richard B. Sewall

"The Adams Women" by Paul C. Nagel

"Living with Walter Lippmann" by Ronald Steel

"The Real Reasons" by Jean Strouse (mostly about Alice James, sister of Henry and William)

"Lyndon Johnson and the Roots of Power" by Robert A. Caro

The idea of reading lectures may sound dreary to some readers, but Extraordinary Lives is far from dull. The six authors apparently spoke as well (or better) than they wrote, and each lecture reads rather quickly. The authors told selected stories about their subjects and described how they researched them. Readers learn much about the issues and methods of biographical writing effortlessly while they listen to the good stories.

If these lectures had been given recently, they would have been on Book TV.

You might enjoy the book just for the stories. I finished wanting to add many books to my reading list.

Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography. New York: American Heritage, 1986. ISBN 0828112061

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