Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Biography Conundrum

If you’re reading this blog post, then, like me, you probably have a long ‘to-read’ list to which you’re endlessly adding. While it’s nice to know that I’ll never run out of things I want to read, this never-ending list is also the source of a little anxiety for me. I am someone who likes to make lists, cross things off the lists and move on to fresh lists. My ‘to-read’ list is the one list that I know I will never conquer in my lifetime, no matter how many titles I read. As a result, I’m careful about which books I add to that list.

That brings me to the topic of biographies and the challenge of choosing which version of a person’s life story I’m going to read.

The biographies I read (on average one or two a year) are invariably about an author or musician whose work I admire. Last year, I read a biography about Shel Silverstein called A Boy Named Shel. Shel Silverstein is best known for his illustrations and writings for children, such as the The Giving Tree and A Light in the Attic.

In the case of Shel Silverstein, A Boy Named Shel was the only biography written for an adult audience that was available to me. I didn’t have to wade through countless reviews of different people’s interpretations of one person’s life story. (The convolution is intentional.)

But how do I settle on just one biography when there are a number of options? I’m facing that question now, as I consider which Nina Simone biography I’m going to tackle. Currently, I am trying to decide between: Nina Simone: The Biography by David Brun-Lambert and Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas.

Both biographies earned decent critical reviews. So, I dug a little deeper for some reader opinions, which revealed more positive reviews for Brun-Lambert’s version of Nina Simone’s life. Due to those reviews, I suppose I am leaning in the direction of Brun-Lambert’s book. However, this isn’t a complete solution to the puzzle since the people who reviewed Brun-Lambert’s book didn’t review Cohodas’ book (or at least I don’t know if they did). In short: the reviewers are reviewing each title in a vacuum, not against each other.

More importantly, I’m left wondering which book offers the truest portrait of Nina Simone, which I’m not sure anyone can honestly judge, barring personal acquaintances. I realize that no biography, not even an autobiography, can give a completely reliable picture of anyone’s life. This notion of a ‘reliable picture’ doesn’t even really exist, as the nature of a life is too fluid to be held up to a standard of reliability.

The truth of the matter is, I know that no biography can offer what I really want: to feel like I’ve met the subject, for however briefly, by the time I close the book. To date, no biography has ever left me with this feeling, although at one time, I used to begin each new biography with that hope.

Instead of my dinner with Nina, I’ll have to settle for enjoying her music while I read her life story as told by a researcher who may never have met her either. That’s often the nature of biographies. In the end, no matter which biography I choose, I will have at least learned some things I didn’t know about the great Ms. Simone.


1 comment:

  1. I'd recommend Princess Noire, though it does have flaws in skipping quickly over areas of her life that deserve more than a brief summation. I'd pair it up with her autobiography that speaks more to some of these areas.
    As for biographies that speak to you as though you are meeting the subject, I'd recommend The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is fascinating in that Alex Haley's interviews with him (that form teh basis of the book) document a man undergoing massive change, while speaking of change at the same time.