Spencer Ackerman makes some great points about the genre of biography. Like Ackerman, I have a soft spot for a certain kind of biography, for me it’s enigmatic artistic figures. I read David Micahelis’s recent biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz revenously and New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins’s story of Robert Rauschenberg’s life is the best book I’ve read about art. Miles Davis’s autobiography is moving up by non-fiction bench.
That said, biography has serious weaknesses as a genre. They tend toward “great man” theories of history and centering the past on an individual is inherently distorting. They’re easier to read than most non-fiction because they often rely on narrative simplicity and a stable point of view. My books for next semester arrived yesterday and I was a bit worried that the Lyndon Johnson biography for my “American Political Ambition” class was over 1000 pages long. It’s not that it will take a long time to read, it’s that I don’t know how much I’ll have to say about it.