There comes a time, I think, in every reader’s life when he* finds the balance between fiction and non-fiction shifting more toward the latter. I won’t say when this happens, but let’s just say that I’m clearly old enough. I still read a great deal of fiction, but now it’s interspersed with my three other favorite genera: history, essays–and the subject at hand: biography.
Here are just a few of the great biographies that I’ve read in the past couple of years.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
My Family and Other Animals is the story of Gerald Durrell’s five-year sojourn with his remarkably eccentric English family on the island of Corfu between the wars. At the time, Durrell was a young boy with a marked taste for natural history; he spends most of his time avoiding his studies, tromping about the island with a dog or two. It’s very funny story of a very strange family, written with quintessentially British charm. It’s also the tale of a lost culture and a lost place, both of which were more or less obliterated during WWII (and later by flocks of tourists).
The Making of a Philosopher by Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn as a British analytic philosopher who now lives and teaches in the United States. The Making of a Philosopher is both the story of how he got were he is now, and one of the best introductions to 20th century philosophy that anyone is likely to find and still want to read. He’s a wonderfully clear and engaging writer about both himself and analytic philosophy, which is no mean feat. His Shakespeare’s Philosophy is also worth reading.
Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning
This life by one of the great English biographers brings Leonard Woolf out of his more famous wife’s shadow and gives him his rightful place in the literary and intellectual history of 20th century Britain. Woolf was not only Virginia Woolf’s husband and caretaker, but also an author and political theorist, publisher, editor, and civil servant. That he was often most of these at the same time points to his phenomenal capacity for work.
Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy
If there’s any one figure that’s bestrode our historical imagination like a colossus, it’s Gaius Julius Caesar. Goldsworthy has written a biography worthy of Caesar: in-depth, percipient, and exhaustive both in biographical detail and analysis of events. It also fills a huge gap in the study of classical Rome, while also being relatively accessible to any mainstream reader, assuming he’s willing to work a little to keep track of the vast cast of characters, one that is as wide as Roman history itself. It’s worth reading and re-reading.
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin
Samuel Pepys is both a wonderful and daunting subject for a biography. Wonderful because he wrote what is perhaps the most famous journal in English, one that is both highly personal and also highly historical, wrote it during a particularly exciting and fascinating period of English history, and was himself an important civil servant in the Admiralty. Daunting because it’s unlikely that anyone is going to chronicle the nine years of the journal better than he did, and because so damn much was going on during his lifetime. Tomalin pulls it off by resisting the urge to tell the story of Pepys’s life in chronological order for the period when he was writing the journal, instead presenting us with a series of thematic biographical essays. Read this biography, and you’ll want to read the journals.
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
Thomas Jefferson is another tough biographical subject–a figure both highly mythologized and also notoriously hard to pin down. Ellis takes another tack, and attempts to present a sketch of Jefferson’s character and personality as a way to understand his many, many contradictions. Ellis gives us a Jefferson who is complex, devious, idealistic, brilliant, and strange. Ellis has also written a number of other biographies and studies of the Revolutionary period, all of which are worth reading.
Read a good biography lately? Tell us about it in the comments.
* Perhaps also she, but I’m a guy, so what do I know?