Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ten Fall 2010 Biography Gems

This has been an exceptionally rich season for biographies. It’s one of my mainstays as I make my way through a bookstore, though stocking a biography section is not without its challenges.

- Do you include all biographies in one big section, or do you subdivide? As a bookseller I couldn’t stand to see some tacky pop biography touch spines with some accomplished, bigger than life personality (think Barry Manilow beside Nelson Mandela), so we broke out celebrity bios, literary bios, political memoirs and so on. The problem with this approach is that there are always a scattering of leftovers that really go nowhere.

- Do you alphabetize by subject? That seems obvious, but I’ve seen all kinds of alternative shelving strategies.

- Or do you bypass having a Biography section at all? Most people worthy of a biography have achieved something in some field or another- arts, sciences, literature, sports. So why not shelve these books in their appropriate area? With historical figures it’s often tricky separating the life from the times, so why not history? And with literary lives, isn’t the fan most likely to find the book when shelved with the author’s fiction?

Sticking to the “shelve books where the most interested customer is most apt to find them” rule is not always easy.

Over the years I’ve gotten past my snobby disdain for unworthy Biography section climbers, and now I actually enjoy the chaotic mishmash. So many other sections of the bookstore are carved up into specific niche areas. Just as I stroll past the country western section of the CD store (when there used to be CD stores), I walk right by whole sections of the bookstore because I've made some snap decisions about which subjects I'm supposedly interested in, and which not.

The Biography section is one of the few areas where a customer can be exposed to something unintended, and can genuinely be taken by surprise. When my friend Daniel opened Boswell Book Company last year, his mother's one piece of advice was to be sure to have a good Biography section. Lillian Goldin was right.

Yale University Press has a stellar line-up of biographies this year. The highlights:

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt
by Robert Gottlieb (Yale $25 September 9780300141276)
The greatest actress who ever lived, a woman who nearly invented celebrity culture more than a century before Lady Gaga, is brought to life in this short, sweet, lovely little book. It was clearly a labor of love for Gottlieb. Inaugurates Yale’s clever new Jewish Lives series.

A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him
by Michael Takiff (Yale $32.50 October 9780300121308)
This absorbing portrait of the president is composed of taped recollections and observations by people who surround the Clintons, woven with artful skill into a kind of chronological tapestry. If you think there’s nothing new to learn, or worth learning about the man, just start reading.

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nick Phillipson (Yale $32.50 October 9780300169270)
Twenty years in the making, the publication of this comprehensive, accessible “life and times” of the revered Scottish scholar is a real event. I know I'll never get the Ayn Rand fanatics to read Marx, but they should at least familiarize themselves with Adam Smith.

Joe Louis: Hard Times Man
by Randy Roberts (Yale $30 October 9780300122220)
Surprisingly, Joe Louis has never been the subject of a serious biography. Here, a top notch historian explains how he was not just an American icon, but a hero to African-Americans. Excellent jacket.

Houdini: Art & Magic
by Brooke Kamin Rapaport (Yale $39.95 October 9780300146844)
The life and career of the prototypical immigrant achiever and celebrated conjurer, with exquisite and quirky design elements.

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies
by David Wootton (Yale October $35 9780300125368)
There have been surprisingly few full-blown scholarly biographies of the original Renaissance Man. At the center of Wootton’s highly original rendition is the telescope.

Moses Mendelssoh
n by Shmuel Feiner (Yale $25 November 9780300161755)
The most influential Jewish thinker of the eighteenth century, and a pioneer of religious tolerance, Mendelssohn is often referred to as “the German Socrates.”

Antony & Cleopatra
by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale $35 September 9780300165340)
Goldsworthy’s stature as the preeminent popular historian of the ancient world just keeps growing, and this portrait of the iconic lovers (one bookseller called them “the original power couple”) is richly laced with military and political context.

The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb
by Allen M. Hornblum (Yale $32.50 September 9780300156768)
On the 60th anniversary of what came to be called “the Red Scare,” a gripping account of an accomplished industrial and military espionage agent who was said to have given the USSR the plans for the atom bomb. I’ve never read anything better about how and why ordinary people become spies.

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life
by Lev Loseff (Yale $35 January 9780300141191)
When this biography of Brodsky, one of the greatest modern poets, was first published in Russian, it was so acclaimed that it even got reviews in the US media. Literary, philosophical, and deeply personal, Loseff was a personal friend of the poet, and is the perfect biographer.

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