on September 4, 2008
Biographer Rollyson shares his experience and insights in yet another fine contribution to the study of biography (check out all of his books, especially Biography: An Annotated Bibliography and A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography). Writers, readers, students, and teachers (that's me) of biography will benefit from the clear, intuitive organization: entries include important biographers (e.g., Lytton Strachey, Samuel Johnson), types and periods (e.g., Psychobiography, Latin/Medieval Biography), and issues pertaining to the craft itself (e.g., Fair Use, Gossip). The entries are informative on their own, but Rollyson also points out further reading. He is a very generous scholar.
In addition to being too useful to pass up, Biography: A User's Guide is, like all of Rollyson's work, fun to read for its own sake. You will be hooked after opening it up and reading just one entry.
on April 6, 2012
The prospective reader needs to read the introduction. Rollyson there explains that his purpose has been to write a "quirky encyclopedia" whose topic headings are "arbitrary," that reflects his personal "tastes and biases," and that includes his own recycled book reviews. The author suggests that for "a truly random, serendipitous experience, just begin reading alphabetically." But he's also more than accommodating: "Read a line or two, and if it palls, move on to the next item. There is no need to suffer a boring moment and no need to consider the author's feelings."
I took the author at his word and moved through his compilation in one evening, sampling (or not) such topics as "Appearances," "Empathy," "Freud," "Hagiography," "Letters," "Libel," "Obituaries," "Privacy," "Sales," "Suetonius," and "Woolf, Virginia." The book is fun; but in areas with which I was already familiar, I didn't find the book especially accurate or enlightening. For instance, Rollyson says that Edmund Gosse is best known for his Life of Philip Henry Gosse (1890), rather than for his memoir, Father and Son (1907); and Rollyson seems not to know that Ann Thwaite, the biographer of both Gosses, has demonstrated the faultiness of the younger Gosse's recollections.
The most interesting section of the book for me was one that Rollyson himself called unique: "Biographers in Fiction," a description of 37 novelistic treatments of biographers and biographies. So, accept the book for what it is, an enjoyable assortment in which to dip at pleasure.
on May 2, 2008
Just as no fisherman would go through life without Izaak Walton's "The Complete Angler," anyone who writes or simply enjoys biographies will want this book on his or her shelf.
It is a terrific companion for biography writers and lovers.
James McGrath Morris, editor of the monthly "The Biographer's Craft"