The best biographical reading from a biographer

The Books I Picked & Why

Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

By Richard Holmes

Book cover of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Why this book?

A book about biography, with wonderful examples of not just his own but any serious searcher’s methodology. As Holmes writes, the biographer is “a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper.” It’s true!  In my own books I have engaged in the kind of dialogue with my subject that Holmes describes as leading to “a relationship of trust” between biographer and subject. But as he points out, while trust is what one seeks implicitly to achieve, there is always a good chance that that trust has been misplaced: “The possibility of error,” he insists, “is constant in all biography.”

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Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

By Taylor Branch

Book cover of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

Why this book?

I know, I know, this isn’t quite right. It’s not a biography of Martin Luther King – it’s a biography of the Movement, it’s a biography of an era – but it’s so full of telling detail, it’s so full of life, it incorporates so many facts and so much emotional truth into a flowing narrative style that it’s impossible to resist being drawn into what may be the most important story of our time. This book focuses on Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King’s predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, to suggest a world of greater dimensionality. 

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The Fire Next Time

By James Baldwin

Book cover of The Fire Next Time

Why this book?

Again, not so much an explicit memoir (though it is framed by Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”) but a portrait of a community, and the values it stands for, values heralded by everyone from Zora Neale Hurston to Albert Murray to Paul Laurence Dunbar to... Sam Cooke, the subject of my biography. The world that Baldwin described possessed, he wrote, “a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster… very moving and very rare. Perhaps we were, all of us – pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run.” If so, it was that inescapably shared heritage, Baldwin went on, that helped create the dynamic that allowed one “to respect and rejoice in… life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” That was what I tried to evoke most of all, that sense of communal “presentness,” in the pages of my book.

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Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost

By Paul Hendrickson

Book cover of Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost

Why this book?

It was Hemingway’s Boat, with its discursive Shandean style, that set the tone for my book. It was the only way I knew to tell a story that was so uniquely decentralized, so rollickingly exploratory, but I couldn’t begin to rival Paul Hendrickson, who remains the master of the tangential truth, digging deeper into the soul of the man than any Hemingway biography I have ever read – by focusing on his boat. At one point in my Phillips biography, after wandering off-course for 60 pages and finally coming back to the narrative moment I had abandoned, I wrote, “For all of my faith in extended digression I hope I haven’t stretched the limits of reader patience too much by now. Let me just pick up the thread.” But this is nothing compared to Paul Hendrickson’s masterful command of seemingly structureless story-telling, the non-fiction equivalent of some of Alice Munro’s greatest short stories. What can I say? Prize the digression.

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Chuck Berry: The Autobiography

By Chuck Berry

Book cover of Chuck Berry: The Autobiography

Why this book?

Chuck Berry: The Autobiography is a primary clue to the Inner Chuck, if not the Facts of Chuck, an indisputable masterpiece, witty, elegant, and revealing, and (or perhaps but) ultimately elusive. Unlike so many music (and other) autobiographies, every word of this one was written by its author in a web of elegant, intricate connections that are both coded and transparent. Very much like the songs.

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