Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reasons to Read Biography

In the June 2009 issue of Booklist, David Wright states that he can think of only two good reasons to read biography. He thinks it is a good way (1) to learn history and (2) to "get the dirt." He enjoys exposés and confessional memoirs that reveal inner demons. In the same issue, Kaite Mediatore claims that she enjoys reading about "dames," which she describes as strong, good-humored women worth admiration. Both David and Kaite review five books, some of which are old and rare.

Since they have opened the conversation, it seems a good time to bring out my list of reasons to read biography.

Reason 1: To discover fascinating people.

Harry Harlow is one such person. He was an enthusiastic experimental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, when he discovered how important parental care was to the development of young monkeys. He became a proponent of love featured on CBS Television news. Ironically, he ignored his own wife and children. Deborah Blum examines the life of a contradictory character in Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.

Reason 2: To rediscover people we think we know well.

In our mental processing of everything that we have learned about historical figures, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, we sometimes reduce them to a few facts, such as "general who became our first president" or "president who freed the slaves." In doing this we forget what truly made them remarkable. Luckily for us, biographers recollect the stories and present them fresh and new. Consider John Adams. Many people considered him pretty old and dry before David McCullough wrote his intimate biography, simply called John Adams.

Reason 3: To reassess infamous characters.

Margaret Sanger was a nurse who saw tremendous suffering in the slums of New York City in the early twentieth century. She began a crusade for birth control, which included the distribution of honest and frank information about sex. For this she was condemned by many religious, political, and law enforcement officials. Ellen Chesler recounts the life and times of a woman ahead of her times in Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

Reason 4: To get the story behind legendary characters.

There really was a Queen Boudica who tried to expel the Romans from Britain, but she was not the mass murderer that some legends suggest. Vanessa Collingridge uses archeological evidence to redraw the queen's image in Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen.

Reason 5: To get the dirt. (A nod to David)

Sir Thomas Malory is often credited with establishing the tradition of knightly chivalry. According to Christina Hardyman, he was really a rapist, murderer, and thief. She makes her case in Malory: The Knight Who Became King Arthur's Chronicler.

Reason 6: To find a hero, warts and all. (A nod to Kaite)

Ethiopian widow Haregewoin Teffera did not want to foster an AIDS orphan, but her priest insisted. Once she cleaned the girl, she fell in love and began working for all her country's orphans. Melissa Fay Green describes Teffera's life and work in There Is No Me Without You: One Women's Odyssey to Rescue Africa's Children.

Reason 7: To learn history through the life of an individual.

When the heads of her friends began to fall in Paris, Marie Tussaud was there to catch them and cast them in wax. Kate Berridge recounts how a survivor of the French Revolution became a entertainment pioneer and a very rich woman in Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax.

Reason 8: To experience adventure from the safety of one's armchair.

Despite the dangers of travel over the Andes Mountains and on the Amazon River in the eighteenth century, Isabelle Godin des Odonais set forth to cross the South American continent to rescue her husband. Robert Whitaker tells an excite tale in The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon.

Reason 9: To celebrate one's culture.

Why did the life of an entertainer mean so much to his many fans? Novelist Bobbie Ann Mason explains in her compact biography Elvis Presley.

Reason 10: To enjoy a good book.

Take any of the nine titles from above and insert here.

Ten seems a nice number at which to stop. You might write some more reasons of your own after reading a few good biographies.

My book Real Lives Revealed: A Guide to Reading Interests in Biography publishes next week. It includes reviews of all of these titles, plus 591 more.

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