Other people’s lives

“Live your own life.” How many times have we heard or said that? But yesterday I was reminded of an exception to that rule, albeit in a nonliteral sense.

When I was picking up a couple books from the library, I realized both were biographies. That in and of itself is not unusual. What got me was that I’m currently reading a biography of a jazz musician and the memoir of an actor and that three of the last nine books I’ve read were memoirs. Evidently,I’m on a biographical binge.

Granted, over the last decade or so there’s been an onslaught of memoirs. And, sadly, I think that has produced two ill effects for bothmemoirs and biographies. First, there are far too many “tell-all” books where it seems a predominant purpose is being salacious enough to draw media attention. Second, as one NYT critic put it, memoirs have bloated by people “writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional.”

No doubt, whether a book falls into either category or both is probably a matter of personal taste. And I’m not claiming that I have better taste than anybody else. It’s simply that over the years I’ve realized that these genres allow me to get a view of and gain insight into life and history from a different, individualized perspective. As Louis L’Amour said, “For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.”

There’s plenty of lives in these recent memoirs and biographies: an opium addict, a jazz musician, an actor and a Lakota Indian chief, as well as professional baseball, football and hockey players. None of this explains what’s led to the recent binge, but reading about others may make it more easy for you to live your own.

Biography is history seen through the prism of a person.

Louis Fischer

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