Reading Biography

A colleague at work gave me these 4 autographed biographies of American presidents.

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These books arrived at my office after a meeting where business and the pleasure of reading seem to go naturally together. My colleague had obviously discovered my love of books and thought she’d indulge it. We didn’t talk about any particular genre so I was pleasantly surprised to be given 4 biographies, my favorite kind of reading.

The great English lexicographer and essayist, Samuel Johnson, once said: “I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.” By studying the lives of other people, specifically those who’ve risen to great renown, we can learn a lot about the workings of human excellence and human vice. We can put to use what we learn from these biographies in our own lives.

Humanities departments have long argued that one of the best ways to improve yourself, both morally and culturally, is to study the arts and literature; more specifically novels and other works of the imagination. By experiencing the world imaginatively through the lives of others we’re able to sympathize, to “move with” them, as our protagonists experience the world, its triumphs, trials, and tribulations. It’s through this sympathetic process that we expand our own moral and cultural horizons. We understand them and ourselves better. This has the potential to create new intellectual and moral connections we did not have before. We grow.

In the modern age biography has replaced the novel in this respect. Just notice how the fiction section of the Barnes and Noble Book Shop is shrinking and the biography section is expanding. Most modern biographers write their story with the skill of a good novelists, and with biography you’re dealing with facts, with characters from history, not fiction. I think there’s a greater demand these days for the literature of fact, because it touches our need for what P.G. Wodehouse once said about good conversation as being “a feast of reason and a flow of soul.”

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