Patricia's Reviews > Biography: A Very Short Introduction

Biography by Hermione Lee
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May 31, 12

bookshelves: about-writing
Read in May, 2012

I'm reading a great deal of material on the history and "how-to" of biography as I work on a life story project of my own. Lee, who has written the biographies of Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, has crammed a great deal of erudite information into A Biography: Very Short Introduction. I quickly learned to keep the dictionary handy while reading this book. (I can never recall the meaning of the word apotheosis and panegyric was a totally new word for me.) I thoroughly enjoyed her approach to the subject even though it was a great deal more academic that Nigel Hamilton's How to do Biography: A Primer which I'm finding an invaluable guide in my project.

First of all, Lee's tone is much less familiar and friendly than Hamilton's. It's a very British tone, and she focuses most of her examples on British biographies and biographers which were often unfamiliar to me. But what I really liked was the structure of her book. She explains her approach this way:

"I find . . .[a] progressive model of biography misleading. What I see, rather, is a the continual recurrence, in different contexts, of the same questions of definition, value, and purpose."

She then examines these questions in chapters titled for example "Warts and All" and "Fallen Idols." As I move into my project, questions about warts and falling from grace loom large, and so I liberally underlined in pencil Lee's considerations, explanations, and conclusions. Many of these ideas were also discussed in Hamilton's book, but more pragmatically and to some degree less emotionally. In the chapter titled "Public Roles," Lee digs into issues about identity, "impression management" and the subject as performer in contrast to their private self. Of course, my goal like many biographers is to figure out how to connect the two, if indeed I can even discover and learn more about the private self.

In any event, this was a powerful and lucrative read, one I thoroughly enjoyed. If you are a reader of biography, this book will be illuminating. And if you are writer of biography, it's a must read.
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