How to pick one biography of many?
March 8, 2016 10:11 AM   Subscribe

How do you decide which biography to read when there are several for a given person?

I'm looking for biographies that are well-written and accurate. I've enjoyed things by Stacey Schiff, John McPhee, and Nancy Mitford, which sets the bar fairly high.

However, most notable individuals have multiple biographies. My library has 4 biographies of Josephine Baker and 6 of Lester Young ... and if I look at the extended library system, there are even more.

How do I tell which ones are the best? Is there a or Rotten Tomatoes for biographies?

Please recommend techniques and resources, as this is an issue that comes up for me a lot.

posted by kristi to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think I'd just look up the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
posted by MsMolly at 10:22 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

> I think I'd just look up the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

I wouldn't, I'd look up professional reviews by people qualified to review a biography of that person; I guess it depends on whether you privilege readability (in which case Amazon and Goodreads may be useful) or accuracy (in which case you want a professional who knows the subject).
posted by languagehat at 10:39 AM on March 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Check if there's a long-form professional review of the most recently published one by any of the usual suspects (New Yorker, LRB, NYRB, LARB, etc.). These often compare the new book to the most important previous biographies of the same person, in terms of emphasis, sources, author's bias, style, audience, and so on, and should help you get a sense of the differences between them and which one you'd want to read.
posted by theodolite at 10:39 AM on March 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I actually did PhD work in biographical theory. There are a few things I would consider. First of all, I'd look at the author's credentials. I'd prefer to read something by a professional historian or an expert in the area the subject worked in (for instance, I'd read a literature professor's book on T. S. Eliot). I'd also consider the date. Sometimes important new information has come to light or societal changes have made a big difference in how we would view a subject's life (newer biographies of Virginia Woolf would reflect changes in attitudes toward women and mental illness). On the other hand, some biographies are great even though they're older - you should just be aware of these issues when you read them. It's important to remember that no single biography will give you the "truth" about a human being. All biographies reflect the prejudices of their authors and the times they live in. Some biographers clearly have an axe to grind. I think my favorite title is All That Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine, which is nonetheless an excellent book. On preview, theodolite's advice is excellent.
posted by FencingGal at 10:48 AM on March 8, 2016 [12 favorites]

I'd page through them briefly at the library and get a sense of the writing style and intended audience. They should be shelved in the same area, right? Do the footnotes suggest lots of use of primary sources? Do you see assertions about what someone was thinking or feeling that isn't tied to primary sources? Is the prose ponderous? Or glib? Is the focus more on telling a life story or using the person as a window to explore some broader issue?
posted by Area Man at 10:54 AM on March 8, 2016

I'd also do a quick google search of the author to see if they have any biases that might come through. A good example of this is in the various biographies of Joseph Smith--only one or two were written by non-LDS scholars, and that would certainly influence the telling.
posted by witchen at 11:10 AM on March 8, 2016

I guess it depends on whether you privilege readability (in which case Amazon and Goodreads may be useful) or accuracy (in which case you want a professional who knows the subject)

If you're not a specialist, readability really matters. I understand (and if this isn't true, then it can still stand as a hypothetical example) that one of the leading biographies of Alan Turing has some lumps of math indigestible to your average layman. It might not even occur to a mathematician reviewer to point this out, but it might be impossibly offputting for a person not prepared to grapple with the material. Or a biography of Deleuze: a philosopher or critical theorist would probably not be the best at determining whether it presented his ideas in a way that would resonate with someone who's never looked at modern theory. This is useful information for the lay reader!

If you pull the most recent of the volumes from the shelf, it will probably make reference to the prior studies, often in an introductory section. This may give you some idea of how the older works are viewed and how the current one positions itself. You may find that you like the idea of "Prof. X's text-heavy focus" over current Prof. Y's interest in "the political functions of Mr. Z's work."
posted by praemunire at 12:29 PM on March 8, 2016

I usually look at two things: the endnotes, so see how much the author has put into researching the subject, and the opening chapter. I can tell an awful lot about how much I will enjoy a work within a few pages, because the beginning of a biography is a set-piece, meant to hook the reader. if the author can't get that right, the next 600 pages won't likely be worth my time either.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:34 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

*I'd start with all the professional reviews I could find, plus things like Amazon reviews.
*Don't skip reviews by the subject's friends/family/admirers/opponents, just keep in mind any biases those reviewers might have.
*Any so-called "fictionalized biography", like Edmund Morris' bio of Ronald Reagan, is scratched from the start --- there's fiction and there's biography, and at least to me the two categories can never overlap.
*Definitely do read multiple bios written by different people: they'll place a different emphasis on the same subject, and it's healthy to see the various views. Again with Reagan: the biography of Reagan written by a syncophant like Bill O'Reilly shows him in a far more favorable light than one by either an unbiased or a very liberal author. Nancy Reagan's printed collection of her & RR's love letters will present a much different couple than the unauthorized bio of Nancy written by Kitty Kelly. But reading some of both sides gives a better-rounded look at the subject.
posted by easily confused at 1:13 PM on March 8, 2016

It depends on the book. A government figure vs. an activist vs. a celebrity are going to have different experts and stakeholders in their respective fields of study. It also depends on if you want to read something for entertainment or because you're researching.

First I find the three most recent biographies. Then I figure out which, of those, are most likely to be about the part of the person's life that I want to know, judging from the inside/back cover and end notes.

If It's important and I have more time, I check to see if the book is recommended by experts on the person, on hobbyist websites, or by their fan club (if fans hate it but reviews are good, that's useful info); or widely collected on Worldcat (less than five years old but more than 2 years old and widely collected = many libraries agree that it's a keeper.) Then I check Booklist, Goodreads, and Amazon reviews as well as a brief check to see what the publicity for the book is like. Sometimes an interview with the author will pop up that will explain their ideas and motivations and talk about other work in the field.

You also want to be aware of the target demographic for each book...frequently your library will have a biography for the same person geared towards kids, teens, as well as a couple for adults.

Is it for a report for school, you have five minutes to choose a book before the library closes, and you don't know anything about the subject? Physically locate the books, and pick the two in the bunch that have jacket copy that makes them sound as little like an exciting novel as possible.

Is it for entertainment and you're in the bookstore in the airport and you have five minutes to pick before you have to run for your connection? Flip through the books, skim two pages towards the middle, and decide which you liked better.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:46 PM on March 8, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great replies!

The advice to look for professional reviews of the most recent biography is terrific and should help me a lot.

While I appreciate the advice to pull the books off the shelves and compare them directly, I can't usually do that - they're often at different branches, or even in different cities (via my library's statewide lending service). However, you've reminded me that I might be able to preview those books via Google Books - I was able to view the bibliography for one of the Josephine Baker biographies I'm considering over at Google Books, which could help a lot.

Thanks again!
posted by kristi at 9:22 AM on March 11, 2016

And don't forget Amazon's Look Inside the Book, which (when it exists) is often more generous than Google Books previews.
posted by languagehat at 10:56 AM on March 11, 2016

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