From Publishers Weekly
This zesty romp through millennia of biographical portraits comes from the pen of a master biographer (JFK: Reckless Youth). Hamilton's a friendly spectator to his own art, undaunted by its age, variety or the number and skill of the practitioners who've gone before him. Starting with the ancient Gilgamesh epic, he speeds us through the forms—writing, theater, painting and film—in which biographers have portrayed and interpreted individual lives. No shrinking violet, he wrestles with every major figure who's tried a hand at biography or criticized biographers' work. While his own strong convictions are clear, he's fair in his assessment of others and the ideal referee. Not surprisingly, Hamilton uses the most ink on recent decades, when the protections to privacy have fallen away and every dimension of a subject's life has become fair game. That doesn't much bother him, although it deeply troubles others. He also leans to the risky view that our age has brought biographical art to its maturity. Perhaps it has. But even if time proves Hamilton wrong, no one will fail to find his brief, interpretive history of life stories compelling. It's hard to think of a better introduction to one of the most popular genres of literature and art today. B&w illus. (Mar.)
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Hamilton, biographer of JFK and Bill Clinton, is a knowledgeable and personable guide to a craft that is thousands of years old. His expansive definition of biography encompasses cave paintings, oil paintings, television documentaries, and Internet content in addition to books, a perspective that leads to numerous surprises while supporting his contention that biography should be granted the status of a scholarly discipline. Every time Hamilton ventures from generalizations about the craft to explications of specific biographers and scholars of biography, he scores high marks. The pithy sections on Plutarch, Virgina Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Ian Hamilton (frustrated biographer of J. D. Salinger) are especially strong. However, Hamilton offers two debatable conclusions. He writes that in contemporary Western culture, biography has become "the dominant area of nonfiction broadcasting and publishing," and he says that before his book, "there has been no single accessible introduction to the subject," an assertion his own bibliography suggests is mistaken, even as it omits relevant books. Fortunately, these claims do not greatly diminish the value of his fascinating history. Steve Weinberg
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