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Biographies That WON’T Make You Sick and Kill You

(underline ‘won’t’ because that makes it look like the other ones…)

Read It Forward

Look, I understand that in some fundamental way one’s interest in a biography cannot be completely divorced from one’s interest in the subject. So, unlike other forms of literary art, even biographies of wide acclaim don’t necessarily presume a large readership outside of the already converted. Despite knowing this, I’m just going to say it: for the most part, biographies are really boring—and here’s the kicker—even when the subject is of great importance to me. I’ve picked up lengthy tomes on some of my favorite writers, only to find myself drowning in the banal minutia of ancestors and hometown history and childhood development—and before long I’ll close the book in frustration, muttering something about how I couldn’t give a shit about what my heroes were like as kids, at least not in punishingly comprehensive detail. Get to the part, I think, where they accomplish the things that made me want to read a biography about them in the first place!

The reason I’m complaining at all is because I really love a good biography, and moreover, I really need them to do my work. So when I come across ones that hold my attention—or even rivet it, in some cases—I’m profoundly appreciative of its author for turning what might have been a grueling and tedious chore into a joyous and illuminating experience.

essay-collections-2Writers at Work | Literary Hub
On 12 books and 4,500 pages of essay collections from Jessica Hopper, Richard Hell, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Lillian Ross, John Lahr, Joni Tevis, Greil Marcus, Helen Vendler, Jeff Nunokawa, Stanley Fish, and Edward Mendelson.

This year has given us essay collections by a wide variety of writers from different points in their careers—some life-spanning tomes, some brazen debuts, some posthumous celebrations, and one novelist working, as William Gass phrased it, “off duty.” And here I wish to discuss 12 of these books, in praise not just of the journalistic/critical essay as art but in general to all its eclectic practitioners—those often unknown and usually underpaid freelancers, those occasional contributors struggling to get by, those staff writers churning out 2,000-word pieces like a court stenographer, whose volume seems to reduce their artistry but who are merely practicing a different kind of art, one that necessarily responds and reacts to the world and its daily shifts, and so instead represents not a finished product but a process of continual creation—here’s to writers at work.