Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Twentieth Century Lives: Biography Panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Every Thursday I receive an email with highlights of the upcoming C-SPAN 2 Books TV schedule. I rarely make time to watch TV but I scan the announcement to see if there are books that my library should acquire being discussed. Two weeks ago I noticed a program that I wanted to see. Because it was already Friday when I read the message, I called Bonnie and she recorded the live presentation of Twentieth Century Lives: Biography Panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Yesterday I watched the panel discussion.

According to A. Scott Berg, who was leading the discussion, it was the eleventh year for the biography panel. On this year's panel were Anthony Arthur, the author of Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair; Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination; Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe; and Harold Zellman, coauthor of The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship.

Gabler had just won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography. When asked about why he chose to write about Walt Disney, he said that none of the current works about him were comprehensive or well-documented, and he thought Disney was an import figure that had been disregarded. Gabler got unprecedented access to the Disney company archives and interviewed studio animators and family members. He suggested that a writer has to be crazy to take up biography, as it is easy to become addicted to one's subject; he spent seven years reading Disney's letters and company memos.

Zellman said he and Roger Friedland had to have been crazy to start a book on Frank Lloyd Wright, as a visitor to any Wright site gift shop will find many books on the architect still in print. In their book they planned to have one cahpter to focus on the interns at Taliesin and Taliesin West. That chapter grew and became a book. Sounding a bit uncertain whether such exists, Zellman called The Fellowship a "group biography." (Group biographies do indeed exist, Mr. Zellman. Ask a librarian.)

Walter Isaacson described Albert Einstein as a patent clerk who was a slow learner who became the man of the twentieth century because he was rebellious, creative, and willing to challenge conventional thinking. Isaacson had long been fascinated by Einstein and jumped into writing when the scientist's papers were unlocked in 2006. He found it ironic that the story of Einstein is used by many to justify the difficulty of understanding science (you have to be a genius) when in fact the lesson of his life is that anyone with curiosity can understand. Einstein once said jokingly, "I'm no Einstein."

Anthony Arthur said Upton Sinclair is a mostly forgotten figure now. The Jungle is the only title most people remember, and many of them say that Sinclair Lewis wrote it. Arthur said that Sinclair stayed connected with important people throughout the century until his death in 1968, and he met Disney, Wright, and Einstein in his Los Angeles years.

If librarians were watching, Arthur made them cringe. He spoke at length about the Lanny Budd series, which Sinclair wrote late in life. As an aside, Arthur claimed that the Los Angeles Public Library had disposed of all of its copies of the eleven books in the series. This is not true, as a look in the library's catalog shows multiple copies of each of the titles in the central library. (Did Arthur have trouble with the catalog?) (Did he mean the County of Los Angeles County Public Library? The books are there also.)

The discussion was varied and random, so it is difficult to make any observations about the state of the art of the biography. As Gabler said, authors are possessed by their subjects, which is what makes them interesting speakers. I enjoyed an hour with them.


Marian Sue Byrd said...

Just a note to say that I have read
the Lanny Budd series several times.
Like many series, the earlier books
are my favorites but I do credit my
ability to look at all sides of a
question to my first reading of this
series when I was just out of High
School. Marian Sue Byrd

ricklibrarian said...

Arthur said that he liked the Lanny Budd series very much. He was obviously exaggerating when he said that only a handful of readers remembered it. Maybe he said LA Public did not have them just to make people want them.

Anonymous said...

RE: Zellman and Friedlander's "The Fellowship": The book is a true pageturner. It tells much of the down-and-dirty about the mystique, mostly in the latter part of the architect's life. I couldn't put it down.

That said, I wanted to shake these guys and say CHECK YOUR DATES!!! CHECK YOUR FACTS!!!

I have been on staff at Taliesin/Wisconsin for 10 years, and while I do not pretend to be a FLLW expert, I do know my dates. I also know that it's customary in scholarship to document your sources, which Zellner and Friedlander do in only the most casual, and incomprehensive, way.

A story with this much bling deserves scrupulous checking and editing, and I know for a fact that Z. and F. had excellent readers who provided them with exactly that. Did they listen to their expert readers? Apparently not. Their material is so sloppy that it's not credible, and that's too bad, because this is a story that should be - finally - told.

I understand, from a friend who is quoted in the book, that there is to be a second edition. I hope it incorporates corrections.

tony arthur said...

I'm Anthony Arthur, the author of the Upton Sinclair biography and panel participant at the LA Book Festival. I think I was slightly misunderstood, or didn't make myself clear, with regard to Sinclair's Lanny Budd books and their availability through the LA Public Library. I was trying to point out that the Budd series had been hugely popular in their day, 50 or 60 years ago, but that when I wanted to have a book group of ten people read the best of them, World's End, I found there were only two copies available in the system. Obviously there had been many more in the past, and they had been "de-accessioned," as commonly happens with libraries everywhere--they only have so much room. The same holds for the other books in the series, for the most part--there are four Return of Lanny Budd copies, but only two for Dragon's Teeth, for which Sinclair won the Pulitzer Prize, and one of those is on reserve. I did not mean to imply, I should add, that the LAPL had done badly by Sinclair--the system has a very full and accessible collection of his works in general. Of course, I was indeed exaggerating when I said only a few people knew them any more, and I'm happy to hear that there are more fans out there than I suspected.

ricklibrarian said...

Wow. Mr. Arthur, thanks for replying. I am sorry if I misunderstood. The Lanny Budd fan above who replied is my aunt, who is very well read and remembers lots of great books. again. Thanks for clearing this up.