My posts during April form part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I will be writing to a theme: book genres, largely taken from the comprehensive Goodreads list.
Some 20 years ago, I self-gifted three books - one biography and two auto-biographies - and wondered why on earth I'd not sought out this genre previously. They were: "Days of Grace: A Memoir" by Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersand, "Me: Stories of my Life" by Katharine Hepburn and "Lord Denning: A Biography" by Edward Heward.
I have long loved the marvellous Miss Hepburn; I named my daughter Katherine (I spelt it wrong!) and I am delighted to observe that she has that same long-limbed, uttely effortless style about her. She always struck me as rather eccentric - Katharine Hepburn that is, not my daughter - but in the classiest of ways. Of course, the films she appeared in play to this image, but it is clear that she was her own person. The book is strongest when talking about her family and growing up in New England; a life of priviledge and indulgence, she was a natural to play Tracy Lord in 'The Philidelphia Story'. Her growing love of theatre - and subsequently films - is handled with complete honesty. She admits that she took not a single acting lesson and that she was really quite dreadful early on. Brought up to be confident, her single-mindedness encouraged, she becomes (in her own words) a selfish adult. There's little about her relationship with Spencer Tracy - but what there is, is brutally honest. This is not a well-written book, but it is her - Kate, Miss Hepburn. You hear her voice in every word and it is all the better and certainly all the more enjoyable for it.
I really cannot remember how I came to select the Lord Denning biography - most likely, it was a newspaper review which piqued my interest. Unlike the stream of consciousness style of the previous example, this is a very structured read. Lord Denning was one of our greatest judges and a superb Law Lord. His cases are examined in detail, not for their fame or for any prurient detail they may contain, but for how they contribute to the making of good law. I knew nothing about the law prior to reading this, having that naive idea that the laws came ready-made from Parliament. This book showed me the importance of case law in creating something workable from that which Parliament dumps into their laps. An education, but a very enjoyable one!
My final selection was one I actively sought out. Prof Anthony Clare did a series of interviews for BBC Radio 4 entitled "In the Psychiatrist's Chair" from which he selected 12 for a book of the same name. One of those selected interviews was with Arthur Ashe and I realised immediately that I had to know more. Do not read "Days of Grace" if you want to hear about the glory days of his success as a tennis professional. No, rather read it as the intelligent and articulate thoughts of a man, a black man growing up during a time when his colour blocked him from opportunities. How his unfailing politeness and intellect led him to become a very different activist. The final chapter is written by his co-author after Ashe's death from AIDS, which he became infected with following a transfusion. His extra-ordinary grace in facing what was then a death sentence is an example to all. But, if you read the book, you will see that he lived his whole life in the same manner. A moving and inspirational read.
These three books were published in the early 1990s. Since that time, I have sought out auto/biographies but I have to admit finding very poor pickings. One problem is the proliferation of "celeb" (sleb) biographies, by which I mean those individuals who haunt the pages of gossip magazines and reality shows. Those who are famous for nothing, who display no particular skill or ability, but have made themselves into media fodder. Then there are the barely lived biographies, written about someone well-known within the sporting or popular music arenas, but whose fame is still new - those who have 'barely lived' their lives yet. And finally we have the proliferation of ghost writers who actually write the book for the famed author. All these factors have - for me - lead to an ultimately unsatisfactory experience.
How do you feel about auto/biographies? What do you seek from them? Any recommendations of good reads that I've missed recently?
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