The best books about writers’ lives

Edmund Gordon Author Of The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography
By Edmund Gordon

The Books I Picked & Why

The Blue Flower

By Penelope Fitzgerald

Book cover of The Blue Flower

Why this book?

Biographical fiction treads a fine line: if it sticks too close to the known facts it can seem rather pointless, but if it strays too far from them it often feels dishonest. Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel about the early life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (better known as the poet Novalis) achieves the perfect balance. A moving love story, an immersive portrait of 19th century Germany, and a subtle meditation on the mystery of art, it is a work of soaring originality and tremendous beauty.


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Dickens

By Peter Ackroyd

Book cover of Dickens

Why this book?

This is one of the great literary biographies: impeccably researched, stylishly narrated, refreshingly indifferent to academic convention, and authentically Dickensian in its pungency of atmosphere and solidity of characterisation.


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The Savage Detectives

By Roberto Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer

Book cover of The Savage Detectives

Why this book?

Bolaño’s masterpiece follows two fictional poets (one of whom is closely modelled on the author himself) from their youthful heyday in 1970s Mexico through twenty years of wandering the globe. Narrated in a polyphonic array of voices, the novel is a funny, sexy, playful, surreal and deeply moving vision of the wasting away of youthful potential and the joys and agonies of devoting one’s life entirely to literature.


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Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

By Richard Holmes

Book cover of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Why this book?

Richard Holmes is a wonderful biographer – at once romantic and erudite, stylish and empathetic – and this is my favourite of his books. In each of its four chapters, Holmes follows in the footsteps of a different nineteenth-century author: Robert Louis Stevenson, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Gerard Nerval. The book contains elements of travel-writing, biography, autobiography, and meta-biographical reflection, and adds up to a masterclass in the art of life-writing.


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Experience: A Memoir

By Martin Amis

Book cover of Experience: A Memoir

Why this book?

This is a magnificent autobiography, a work of intricate self-portraiture that takes in everything from the author’s dental troubles, through his relationship with his father, to his reaction to his cousin’s murder. Amis’s comic energy and stylistic brio are on sizzling display throughout, but so are qualities that aren’t often associated with his fiction: gentleness, generosity, emotional vulnerability…


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