Just in case you haven’t heard of the Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press – I absolutely love it!
It reminds me a bit of the Horrible Histories and Horrible Science books I used to read when I was a teenager –a solid, basic introduction to a subject aimed at the average semi-educated reader (although comics rarely feature in OUP books, sadly). Some Very Short Introductions are better than others, but that is only expected in such a massive collection of books.
Hermione Lee’s A Very Short Introduction to Biography is definitely one of the better short introductions out there. Dame Hermione Lee is a Professor of English Literature at Oxford and a renowned biographer herself. Her book explores different approaches to biography in the Anglophone world. She discusses the history of biography through medieval saints’ lives, Boswell’s biography of Johnson and Strachey’s Eminent Victorians to Virginia Woolf’s biography of Flush (Elizabeth Barret-Browning’s spaniel). Lee also discusses the philosophical implications the narrative of a biography has – as biography tends to assume a unity of identity and development of character through time. She also talks about the 20th-century Freudian craze that insisted on analyzing every moment of the protagonist’s childhood for hidden sexual angst. The book is well-written and easy to read.
I have always thought of reading biographies as a secret guilty pleasure. But recently, I realized that even Virginia Woolf admitted to reading biographies as a way of relaxing after reading fiction
“For we are incapable of living wholly in the intense world of the imagination. The imagination is a faculty that soon tires and needs rest and refreshment. But for a tired imagination the proper food is not inferior poetry or minor fiction — indeed they blunt and debauch it — but sober fact, that “authentic information” from which….good biography is made. “
Hermione Lee’s book has definitely made me more appreciative of the skill involved in producing a good biography.