Thursday, July 14, 2011

BTT (#8) ~ biographies

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The topic for this week's Booking Through Thursday:  "There are so many crappy biographies … would you rather read a poorly-written biography of a fascinating life, OR an exquisitely well-written, wonderful read of one of a not-so-interesting life?"
Okay, first some definitions. I read lots of memoirs and occasionally a biography or an autobiography. How are these alike or different?'s definition of a memoir
1. a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.

2. Usually, memoirs [with that "s" at the end]. An account of one's personal life and experiences; autobiography.

3. a biography or biographical sketch.
Wikipedia's definition of memoir
Memoir is autobiographical writing ... Memoirs are structured differently from formal autobiographies which tend to encompass the writer's entire life span, focusing on the development of his or her personality. The chronological scope of a memoir is determined by the work's context and is therefore more focused and flexible than the traditional arc of birth to old age as found in an autobiography.
Gore Vidal, in his own memoir Palimpsest, gave a personal definition:  "a memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked."  It is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one's life than about the outcome of the life as a whole.
What I like about memoirs is the focus on a particular aspect of someone's life and not how s/he got there.  Some memoirs I've read recently:
Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books ~ by Paul Collins, 2003, memoir (Wales), 8/10
A book lover like me wants only his time among the books, not a bunch of stuff about his childhood.
The Year of Magical Thinking ~ by Joan Didion, 2005, memoir, 8/10
It was the year following the sudden death of her husband.  As a writer, Didion dealt with it by writing.
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise ~ by Ruth Reichl, 2005, memoir (New York), 8/10
I don't need a full biography to have fun watching a food critic try to hide her identity from restaurant owners.
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University ~ by Kevin Roose, 2009, memoir (Virginia), 9/10
This one isn't a whole year, but a college semester.  This liberal student goes "undercover" at Jerry Falwell's school.
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible ~ by A. J. Jacobs, 2007, memoir/religion, 9/10
Once again, it covers a year in this man's life.  The subject is fascinating because it has a focus.
So to answer the original question, I'd rather read the fascinating stuff of a person's life, whether they are famous or not.  What matters is how well it is written.

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