When I was in grade school we had to write reports on books with various topics and styles each year. Teachers were trying to make sure we didn’t stick to our preferred genres, but ventured out into other types of reading. I loved fiction and would have happily read only that, but I dutifully read from the list of other kinds of books each year. As a result, I read a biography each year as a kid. Otherwise I don’t think I would have been interested. After that required reading, I rarely ever picked up, much less read a biography.
Typical of what I read was a volume of the Landmark History Series, a story of Molly Pitcher, brave Revolutionary War heroine. (I just read about her and learned there was no such person!) Biographies for kids were, I think, meant to inspire us in the 1950’s to pursue patriotic, heroic, brave and outstanding lives. They didn’t present a rounded picture of anyone, and they seemed more propaganda than history. I made the mistake of never considering that adult biographies might be different, especially ones written in the last 40 years.
I read many autobiographies and memoirs throughout my adult years. At least they were first hand accounts, however skewed through the lens of the writer. But recently I noticed that I have read three lengthy biographies this year, the ones pictured above. What changed? I have become old and am intrigued with the long arc of another person’s life. I no longer demand simplistic accounts of people who have made a mark on their worlds. Instead I crave the complex reality of a long life with its failures and successes. A good biographer, working with countless primary sources, attempts to present such a story.
To all my friends who asked me over the years why I didn’t read biographies, this post stands as an answer. You were right. They are fascinating and I am trying to catch up with all of you. 600 pages at a time!