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Monday, April 21, 2014

Biographies

When I was in high school, my english teacher Jerry once said rather frantically:
"I can't stand biographies, I don't see the point. What you can learn from them? They're a waste of time!"

Recently, I've gone through quite a few biographies. Amy Winehouse, Coco Chanel, Henrietta Lacks, Barbara Walters, Mark Twain. There are many more that I want to read (or rather, listen to - I almost exclusively rent audiobooks now). Each one depicted unique struggles, illustrated the moral landscape at different times and places, and gave me perspective on the biases, laws, customs, fears, powers that influenced the way each of them lived. Wouldn't a better understanding of each other's environment promote compassion and tolerance? Wasn't that valuable enough to be worth publishing?

Additionally, I'm not sure how biographies differ from fiction. Many of the biographies are as sensational, if not more so, than made-up stories. The fact that they actually happened in real life should not take away from the fact that they recount fascinating stories of characters who have overcome great difficulties or achieved tremendous success or both. Real or not real, the story is inspiring, provokes thought, and is entertaining. How are they a waste of time?

This comment stuck with me for many years. I still don't understand it. Did he mean that identifying with the autobiographer and comparing our lives with theirs was futile and useless? Or that writing about oneself was a narcissistic activity in which only the entitled indulged? If I meet him when I go home next month, I will have to ask him.

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