Of lives less ordinary

Can big biographies compete for the reader’s attention amid so much noise?

Written by James Atlas | Updated: November 25, 2014 12:19:18 am

They land on my doorstep every day for weeks, their sharp report the sign that a new shipment has arrived. Others are thrust into my hands by the doorman, at first with jocularity, then annoyance, bulky packages that I wrestle into the elevator, dropping half of them on the floor. I have agreed to be a judge for a literary prize, and by the time the postal onslaught ends, there are 107 more books in my house than there were before — an addition no one but me would notice, so jammed is every available space with the evidence of a bibliophile’s intractable habit. Still, it’s a lot of books. I have taken on this task voluntarily, considering it the discharge of a civic obligation. But, of course, it’s an intellectual pleasure, too, and thus no great sacrifice: All those books I meant to read, the ones glimpsed in bookstore windows or recommended by friends, I now have to read — or, I guess I should say, get to read.

The prize I’m judging is for biography, and the variety is stunning: artists and writers, capitalists and failed capitalists, courtesans, saints, detectives and criminals, the living and the dead. “Dark dark dark,” T.S. Eliot intoned: “They all go into the dark.” But some go having been the subject of 800-page biographies.

Why does the doorman groan? Because biographies tend to be heavier than other books. This is a historical fact: My edition of James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, generally agreed to be the greatest biography ever written, is more than 1,200 pages. Victorian biographies were more massive still. And in our own time, we have the multivolume masterpieces of Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson and Edmund Morris on Theodore Roosevelt, among many robust others. Why so big? They’re fact-driven, and of facts there is no end. The biographer’s mandate is to be as complete as possible; there is no such thing as a “definitive” novel. If you don’t put everything in, the reader won’t trust you not to have taken important things out.

Will there continue to be an audience for these doorstops? We live in a culture “distracted from distraction by distraction” (Eliot again); how can a thousand-page biography compete for the reader’s attention with so much noise? And it’s not just about size. The glut of data will change the way biography is written. Sifting through 100 emails will yield both more and less than a single letter — more information about a subject’s life as it’s lived minute-to-minute; less evidence of the emotional perturbations that peek through the self-censorship of correspondence. The biographer will have to learn to interpret these new kinds of evidence in new ways.

Atlas is the author of ‘Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet’ and ‘Bellow: A Biography
The New York Times

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