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on May 30, 2008
It's true that there's no other book devoted specifically to the "how to" of biography. And this is indeed a "primer" to the subject. The first section, "Getting Started" (116 pages, about a third of the text), is excellent. It is well written, reliable, and concise, and I'd recommend it to anyone who studies or writes biography. The chapter on audience is especially good. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Hamilton's wide command of the field. He draws on examples of many recent biographies and assesses them astutely in relationship to one another. His remarks on Edmund Morris's Reagan biography are especially helpful.

I'd give this book 5 stars easily if it were all as good as the first section. Unfortunately, the last 2 sections are mostly collections of quotations; they lack the imagination and insight of the first section. In the middle section, called "Composing a Life-Story," Hamilton takes us through the "seven stages of man." He gives lots of examples but not much more than that. In the chapter on "Love," he lapses into personal defensiveness against his own critics. In the final section, "Variations on a Theme," he mostly talks about autobiography and memoir. Since there are so many books about writing those, one wonders why they deserve a place in a primer on biography. Perhaps it was the publisher's decision.

Though neither is devoted to the subject of biography per se, I'd recommend two other "how to" books for aspiring biographers: Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction--and Get It Published. Both provide approaches that are quite different from Hamilton's and are thus worthy of consideration alongside his.
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on January 3, 2009
First, let me make it clear that I have no personal grudge against Nigel Hamilton. He writes well, and I believe prospective biographers would do well to read his book.

My quarrel is with Hamilton's indifference to the importance of truth, which unconcern he flaunts in his opening chapter by declaring that the biographical "shots heard round the world" were Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (1907) and Freud's Leonardo da Vinci (1910). Likewise, in a later chapter, while defending the salaciousness with which he approached the life of Bill Clinton--a "sleazy new low" repeating "the most scurrilous and unsubstantiated rumors," wrote one critic--Hamilton defends his prurience by citing the comments of Suetonius on the sexual perversion of the Roman emperor Tiberius.

The problem with all three of these examples is that they are at worst, false and at best, not susceptible to proof. Freud's "outing" of Leonardo as a homosexual is based on a phantasmagoria. Even Charles Nicholl, a Leonardo biographer (2004) who believes Freud's speculations are "worth listening to," notes that critics have denounced Freud's work as "highly speculative psychology on top of highly speculative history, and they are right." (33-34) Peter Gay's careful biography of Freud, which Hamilton himself quotes at some length, reveals that Freud himself called his long paper on Leonardo a "halbe Romandichtung," a half-fictional production.

Suetonius's eyebrow-lifting stories of Tiberius molestation of slave boys may well be true; but they are again just as likely false. Suetonius had an ax to grind with Tiberius and perhaps with all emperors. At least the Oxford History of the Classical World (1986) declares that Suetonius's "scandalous descriptions" of the emperor's intimate life make for "an effective, though not necessarily accurate, character portrait." The Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996), even less enamored, says that the "stories of vice...may be discounted." (1523-24)

As for Gosse's beautifully written Father and Son (1907), its portrayal of Philip Henry Gosse as a tyrannical, joyless, religiously maniacal father is literarily and psychologically true but factually bogus, as Ann Thwaite--the biographer of both Gosses--has adequately demonstrated in her fine (and unfortunately almost unknown) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse (2002). Gosse pere, though deeply religious, turns out to have been a warm and generous person, deeply in love with life and his family, a man who was slugged into opprobrium by his son's memoir.

Hamilton argues that the biographer should "follow, document, and verify the results of genuine, open-minded curiosity." (91-92) But often missing from his examples is his own skeptical questioning. Hamilton draws appropriate negative lessons from the Reagan "biography" of Edmund Morris and the "memoir" of James Frey, but he is loathe to give up the gossip that gives "color to people's lives." (193) I leave him to it, to his conscience and to his prospective royalties.

Although Hamilton claims to know of "no book or primer to guide the would-be biographer," (1) there have been others, the names of some of which are given in his bibliography. (A true "primer," Milton Lomask, The Biographer's Craft [1986] is an obvious omission, but a work mediocre enough that its absence is certainly pardonable.) My own favorite book about biography (also missing from Hamilton's bibliography) is William Zinsser, ed., Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography (1986), a series of six lectures given at the New York Public Library and tidied up for publication. Read both Hamilton and Zinsser, and see if you don't find the latter both more fun to read and more practical in its direction.
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on February 4, 2013
This book journeys you along a living river off literary time. It peeks you through time windows from past to present leaving you ahead. This book is an awakening as I am soberly impacted by the gravity and responsibility to history. Being a creative writer listening to another persons life then placing living substance to time, setting, character then having the subject nod a silent peaceful affirmation that that a part of their life has been recorded leaves you drained, but satisfied. History, events and human decision s- it is hard to figure out which entity leads or follows. However, this book leads a biographer along both parallels and side streets.
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on May 2, 2008
Nigel Hamilton, a gifted biographer, has created the kind of book biographers and lovers of biography have long sought. Intelligent, gracefully written, it will serve as both a guide and a companion to those who care about this craft for years to come.
--James McGrath Morris, editor of the monthly "Biographer's Craft"
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on December 21, 2011
A very helpful book and I'm glad I bought it, but it arrived with the jacket badly crumpled and a couple of small dents in the edge of the book. I would have returned it except I really needed it right then. Great content but in poor condition for a new book.
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on June 24, 2013
A great book, very helpful, guides through getting your thoughts cleared out.
Top motivator! I recommend it to aspiring biographers.
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on August 6, 2015
This is not the book I imagined it to be. It contains little practical advice, but merely relates some of the author's writings.
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on March 6, 2013
Nigel Hamilton's writing is clear and inviting, not to mention inspiring. A useful and thought-provoking work, this "primer" is a must-have for neophytes and seasoned biographers alike.
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on April 18, 2012
There's very little out there to help aspiring biographers. This book is one of several that I recommend to all so inclined. That and Paul Lima's How To Write A Non-Fiction Book in 60 Days.
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on July 29, 2012
The best book on the craft of biography! Thanks to Mr. Hamilton for providing aspiring biographers with a solid foundation on the art and science of life writing.
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