The best group biographies

Ruth Brandon Author Of Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945
By Ruth Brandon

The Books I Picked & Why

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

By Louis Menand

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Why this book?

The Metaphysical Club is about the Pragmatist philosophers: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. This sounds forbidding, but it’s anything but. Group biography shows how and why particular ideas occur to particular people at a particular moment, and this is a brilliant example of it.


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The Lunar Men: A Story of Science, Art, Invention and Passion

By Jenny Uglow

The Lunar Men: A Story of Science, Art, Invention and Passion

Why this book?

Birmingham’s Lunar Society’s members, among them James Watt who invented steam engines, Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, Josiah Wedgwood, potter and visionary, met to dine on nights of a full moon (because then you could see to ride back). Birmingham in the 18th century was full of new ideas and the wealth they produced, and this sparkling book reflects its excitement.


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A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists

By Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists

Why this book?

Cohen spent a year driving through America accompanied only by two crates of books. She realised, reading them, how many of their authors had met, more or less significantly, one another, from Mark Twain and Henry James to James Baldwin and Elizabeth Bishop. The result was this daisy-chain book. It’s fascinating, illuminating, and utterly charming.


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The Group

By Mary McCarthy

The Group

Why this book?

This is about a group of young women dealing with sex, contraception, powerlessness, and the conflicting demands of family and work. It appeared in 1963, was set in 1933, and was scandalously frank. But women’s lives and problems have not changed. Candace Bushnell, advised by her editor to write a modern version of it, produced Sex and the City. Need one say more?


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Brief Lives - Volume I

By John Aubrey

Brief Lives - Volume I

Why this book?

John Aubrey’s gossipy Lives allow us to glimpse the unofficial side of his famous contemporaries and near-contemporaries, among them Thomas Hobbes (whom he knew), Shakespeare (who died ten years before he was born), Sir Walter Raleigh, and many others. You can dip in and out, and if you haven’t read them, this is a treat in store.


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