28 July 2009

The Trouble with Biographies

I went to the library a couple weeks ago and saw a copy of Larry Tye's new biography Satchel sitting on the new book shelves. It being the middle of summer and the Mariners having not played themselves out of contention yet (those were the days), I decided a baseball book would be perfect. Now, I knew almost nothing about Satchel Paige coming into the book aside from the fact that he was an exceptionally good pitcher.

Now, 123 pages into the book, I'm wondering why I got it in the first place. I mean, it's certainly not a bad book, I just can't bring myself to be that invested in it. Tye does a fine job depicting the life of Paige (though there is some chronological jumping that infuriates me, more on that when I review the book), but it just isn't amazing. And it's made me remember that in general, I don't really like biographies. (That's a little bit weird for a music historian, right?)

Why not? They can have amazing subjects (who doesn't want to know more about Einstein? FDR? Frida Kahlo?) and can be written by fantastic authors. But even the most amazing lives often lack the narrative drive that makes great works of literature so amazing. We're all used to digesting the life of George Washington as a series of bullet-point facts. Unless a biography really elaborates on that, you might as well read the wiki article.

This shouldn't be construed as me saying "There are no good biographies!" Because there are, they're just very rare. I loved the David McCullough biography of John Adams because it showed the founding father in an intensely personal life. The use of his letters with Abigail made for some heart-rending moments, some truly literary moments.

And that's what I think it boils down to, biography lacks the emotional and narrative drive of great literature. Learning facts for bar trivia is great (in 1935 Satchel Paige went 29-2 with 321 strikeouts to only 16 walks... mind blowing), it doesn't make for the most compelling reading. How often do you sit down with your college text books for a nice afternoon? I guess I just have to remember this the next time a glossy cover of a biography yells at me from the shelves in the library.


  1. I like unflattering biographies the best.

  2. Hahahaha. Turns out Thomas Jefferson WAS an asshole! Who knew?