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Six Compact Lives!

By (June 13, 2015) No Comment

nine-lives9

2015 has been blessedly full of whoppingly huge new biographies, and I’ve read as many of them as I could (and I’ve got my lustful eye on the remainder, hoping to devour them before the year ends). I unabashedly love whoppingly huge biographies, but they have one drawback: their printed versions take up a hell of a lot of shelf-space.

When it comes to new books, I increasingly solve this problem in the most effective way possible: I eschew printed versions in favor of electronic ones, which take up no shelf-space, gather no dust, tempt no mice, and fill no crates on moving-day. My trusty e-reader is always with me, fits snugly in my hand, and requires no pen and paper in order to accommodate all the notes I care to write.

But there’s a gap in the e-book world, and it’s a big one, and I doubt anything will ever close it: vast swaths of books printed prior to the digitization of everything never got formatted as e-books and, given their swarms of millions of titles, likely never will. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, thousands and thousands of public-domain titles from Ye Olden Times are available as free and neatly-formatted e-books. And thanks to the demands of the modern market, you can be sure a big new biography of Ronald Reagan or (potato, potahto) Genghis Khan will have a near-simultaneous publication in electronic form. But a 1996 biography of King Alfred the Great? Or a 50-year-old study of historical references in the Sidney Psalter? Digitization requires at least the ghost of a profit motive, and these and countless similar books don’t have one.

So as much as I love a nice full electronic library (I allow myself a discreet $200 a month for e-books), I find my shelves of printed biographies quite full. But one way to manage the space, I’ve found, is to find compact paperbacks of as many mid-range biographies as possible – not the classics, the ones I turn to often, the ones I read as works of literature and not just works of reference, but the ones that fill out a library. Compact lives! Usually printed on cheaper paper and with cheaper bindings, but often representing huge amounts of valuable work on their subjects. Take six examples:

raleighSir Walter Raleigh by Raleigh Trevelyan – This 2002 life of the famed Elizabethan courtier, explorer, and chronic malcontent is one of four Raleigh biographies I currently own; it was published by Penguin, and it’s full of Trevelyan’s spirited evaluations of this staple of historical fiction:

There was nothing effeminate about him. The extravagance and richness of his clothes vastly annoyed his contemporaries, but were part of his attraction for the Queen, who of course could dress far more bizarrely. His armour might be of silver, studded with pearls, diamonds and rubies. He had certainly committed some terrible cruelties in the past, but mostly under orders. He was a byword for vanity and ambition, and was accused of being ‘damnably proud’.

Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert – This Harper victoria hibbertCollins 2001 has neither the sardonic wit of Lytton Strachey nor the heft of Stanley Weintraub nor the odd, chatty wisdom of Lady Longford, but I’m a die-hard fan of jack-of-all-trades Hibbert (I have approximately 150 of his 745 books), and I love his zest and his ability to pull great quotes from his encyclopedic lifetime’s reading:

On the evening of the Queen’s death, the novelist, Henry James, had come out of the Reform Club into Pall Mall. The streets around it seemed to him ‘strange and indescribable’; passers-by spoke in hushed tones as though they were frightened. It was, for him, ‘a very curious and unforgettable impression’. He had not expected to be so moved, since it was, after all, ‘a simple running down of the old used up watch’, the death of an old widow who had thrown ‘her good fat weight into the scales of general decency’.

swift nokesJonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed by David Nokes – This 1985 book from Oxford was for years and years my go-to biography of Swift. The appearance of Leo Damrosch’s biography in 2013 changed that, but Nokes’ book is still a treasure-trove of Swiftiana, and the author’s own analyses are of course unchanged in their wonderful rigor:

Throughout his life Swift adhered to an ideal of conservative humanism which saw specialization itself as a first dangerous step towards that distorted simplification of complex human phenomena which characterized the views of all factions and fanatics. I have therefore attempted to present a portrait of the whole man in his multifarious roles as satirist, politician, churchman and friend and, in particular, have sought to re-establish the balance between his public and private lives which has been missing from some other recent biographies.

Caesar by Christian Meier – Fontana Press brought out this version (translated from caesarthe German by David McLintock) in 1995, and it’s something like the eighth or tenth Julius Caesar biography I own – and it’s of course up against some fierce competition, since Caesar is one of those subjects that tends to bring out the best in even the hacks who write about him (a perfect case-in-point being the volume actually titled Caesar in Colleen McCullough’s series of novels set in ancient Rome; it’s the only book in the series that rises to the level of ‘readable’). Meier can be a leaden writer, but even he is often moved to some nifty insights:

Caesar and his opponents thus represented two disparate realities: the old reality, which had once been the whole and was suddenly reduced to a part, and the new, which had detached itself from the old and could hardly have been realigned with it even if war had been avoided – so wide was the gap, so great the mutual alienation. It was this disparity that characterized the situation – not just conflicting interests, mistrust, fear, hatred, or the pathological exaggeration of individual pretensions.

charles IICharles II by Ronald Hutton – This 1989 volume (also from Oxford) doesn’t actually illustrate the above-mentioned rule about keeping the second-tier also-rans around in paperback, since Hutton’s book is by far the best biography of Charles II ever written; no, in this case the only thing that’s illustrated is my inability to find a hardcover copy of the book! I’ve tape-reinforced this paperback as much as I can, but it’s still going to disintegrate on me, since I re-read it in whole or in part on a regular basis, just to bask in the author’s brilliance:

At his core there lay a vacuum, and what emerges most powerfully from the accounts of those who knew him is a feeling of unreachability, a frustrating instinct that the man inside the king eluded the observer. He suffered no apparent fears of inadequacy. Nor was he, as some have thought, a private melancholic, for he genuinely enjoyed his many pleasures with the same carelessness which he brought to much of the business of ruling and to some of his personal relationships. Yet he remains, for us as for contemporaries, a set of strongly marked characteristics with a cold void at the centre of them. He was a monarch who loved masks, whether of ceremony, of role-playing, or of intrigue. Behind those coverings, something was always missing.

Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes – The same thing applies with this coleridge early visions1989 Penguin paperback: Holmes’ two-volume work is the best thing ever done on Coleridge (in a mighty crowded field), I just haven’t found them both in sturdy hardcovers (nor have they been issued in one big extra-sturdy volume, as they bloody well should). As some of you will know, I have a soft spot for the Romantic poets (and for Lord Byron, the god of their idolatry) and have, over the decades, tried to winnow the really good biographies from the endless gush of titles published every year. When I finally get around to a definitive editions-and-lives Romantics Stevereads post, these volume by Holmes will certainly be on it, complete with the author’s borderline-reverence of his subject (a very common trait in Romantics biographies):

But Coleridge was much more than a Romantic poet: he was also a journalist of genius, a translator, a matchless letter-writer (six volumes), an incomparable autobiographer and self-interrogator in his Notebooks (over sixty surviving between 1794 and his death), a literary critic, a spectacular lecturer, a folklorist, a philosopher, a psychologist (specializing in dreams and creativity), a playwright and dramatic critic, and – that much disputed word – a metaphysician. He was also a travel-writer, a fell-walker, and amateur naturalist with an inspired eye for movement and transformation processes – cloud structures, plant growth, animal activity, light shifts, water changes, wind effects. All these aspects I have tried to bring alive, although Coleridge scholars will know what dreadful chasms … I have perilously skimmed over, in this first volume at any rate.

These little paperback bricks are in some ways the construction-stuff of my entire biography library, so it feels good to give them the praise they deserve! In a little while, I’ll do six more …

Home » stevereads

Six Compact Lives!

By (June 13, 2015) No Comment

nine-lives9

2015 has been blessedly full of whoppingly huge new biographies, and I’ve read as many of them as I could (and I’ve got my lustful eye on the remainder, hoping to devour them before the year ends). I unabashedly love whoppingly huge biographies, but they have one drawback: their printed versions take up a hell of a lot of shelf-space.

When it comes to new books, I increasingly solve this problem in the most effective way possible: I eschew printed versions in favor of electronic ones, which take up no shelf-space, gather no dust, tempt no mice, and fill no crates on moving-day. My trusty e-reader is always with me, fits snugly in my hand, and requires no pen and paper in order to accommodate all the notes I care to write.

But there’s a gap in the e-book world, and it’s a big one, and I doubt anything will ever close it: vast swaths of books printed prior to the digitization of everything never got formatted as e-books and, given their swarms of millions of titles, likely never will. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, thousands and thousands of public-domain titles from Ye Olden Times are available as free and neatly-formatted e-books. And thanks to the demands of the modern market, you can be sure a big new biography of Ronald Reagan or (potato, potahto) Genghis Khan will have a near-simultaneous publication in electronic form. But a 1996 biography of King Alfred the Great? Or a 50-year-old study of historical references in the Sidney Psalter? Digitization requires at least the ghost of a profit motive, and these and countless similar books don’t have one.

So as much as I love a nice full electronic library (I allow myself a discreet $200 a month for e-books), I find my shelves of printed biographies quite full. But one way to manage the space, I’ve found, is to find compact paperbacks of as many mid-range biographies as possible – not the classics, the ones I turn to often, the ones I read as works of literature and not just works of reference, but the ones that fill out a library. Compact lives! Usually printed on cheaper paper and with cheaper bindings, but often representing huge amounts of valuable work on their subjects. Take six examples:

raleighSir Walter Raleigh by Raleigh Trevelyan – This 2002 life of the famed Elizabethan courtier, explorer, and chronic malcontent is one of four Raleigh biographies I currently own; it was published by Penguin, and it’s full of Trevelyan’s spirited evaluations of this staple of historical fiction:

There was nothing effeminate about him. The extravagance and richness of his clothes vastly annoyed his contemporaries, but were part of his attraction for the Queen, who of course could dress far more bizarrely. His armour might be of silver, studded with pearls, diamonds and rubies. He had certainly committed some terrible cruelties in the past, but mostly under orders. He was a byword for vanity and ambition, and was accused of being ‘damnably proud’.

Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert – This Harper victoria hibbertCollins 2001 has neither the sardonic wit of Lytton Strachey nor the heft of Stanley Weintraub nor the odd, chatty wisdom of Lady Longford, but I’m a die-hard fan of jack-of-all-trades Hibbert (I have approximately 150 of his 745 books), and I love his zest and his ability to pull great quotes from his encyclopedic lifetime’s reading:

On the evening of the Queen’s death, the novelist, Henry James, had come out of the Reform Club into Pall Mall. The streets around it seemed to him ‘strange and indescribable’; passers-by spoke in hushed tones as though they were frightened. It was, for him, ‘a very curious and unforgettable impression’. He had not expected to be so moved, since it was, after all, ‘a simple running down of the old used up watch’, the death of an old widow who had thrown ‘her good fat weight into the scales of general decency’.

swift nokesJonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed by David Nokes – This 1985 book from Oxford was for years and years my go-to biography of Swift. The appearance of Leo Damrosch’s biography in 2013 changed that, but Nokes’ book is still a treasure-trove of Swiftiana, and the author’s own analyses are of course unchanged in their wonderful rigor:

Throughout his life Swift adhered to an ideal of conservative humanism which saw specialization itself as a first dangerous step towards that distorted simplification of complex human phenomena which characterized the views of all factions and fanatics. I have therefore attempted to present a portrait of the whole man in his multifarious roles as satirist, politician, churchman and friend and, in particular, have sought to re-establish the balance between his public and private lives which has been missing from some other recent biographies.

Caesar by Christian Meier – Fontana Press brought out this version (translated from caesarthe German by David McLintock) in 1995, and it’s something like the eighth or tenth Julius Caesar biography I own – and it’s of course up against some fierce competition, since Caesar is one of those subjects that tends to bring out the best in even the hacks who write about him (a perfect case-in-point being the volume actually titled Caesar in Colleen McCullough’s series of novels set in ancient Rome; it’s the only book in the series that rises to the level of ‘readable’). Meier can be a leaden writer, but even he is often moved to some nifty insights:

Caesar and his opponents thus represented two disparate realities: the old reality, which had once been the whole and was suddenly reduced to a part, and the new, which had detached itself from the old and could hardly have been realigned with it even if war had been avoided – so wide was the gap, so great the mutual alienation. It was this disparity that characterized the situation – not just conflicting interests, mistrust, fear, hatred, or the pathological exaggeration of individual pretensions.

charles IICharles II by Ronald Hutton – This 1989 volume (also from Oxford) doesn’t actually illustrate the above-mentioned rule about keeping the second-tier also-rans around in paperback, since Hutton’s book is by far the best biography of Charles II ever written; no, in this case the only thing that’s illustrated is my inability to find a hardcover copy of the book! I’ve tape-reinforced this paperback as much as I can, but it’s still going to disintegrate on me, since I re-read it in whole or in part on a regular basis, just to bask in the author’s brilliance:

At his core there lay a vacuum, and what emerges most powerfully from the accounts of those who knew him is a feeling of unreachability, a frustrating instinct that the man inside the king eluded the observer. He suffered no apparent fears of inadequacy. Nor was he, as some have thought, a private melancholic, for he genuinely enjoyed his many pleasures with the same carelessness which he brought to much of the business of ruling and to some of his personal relationships. Yet he remains, for us as for contemporaries, a set of strongly marked characteristics with a cold void at the centre of them. He was a monarch who loved masks, whether of ceremony, of role-playing, or of intrigue. Behind those coverings, something was always missing.

Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes – The same thing applies with this coleridge early visions1989 Penguin paperback: Holmes’ two-volume work is the best thing ever done on Coleridge (in a mighty crowded field), I just haven’t found them both in sturdy hardcovers (nor have they been issued in one big extra-sturdy volume, as they bloody well should). As some of you will know, I have a soft spot for the Romantic poets (and for Lord Byron, the god of their idolatry) and have, over the decades, tried to winnow the really good biographies from the endless gush of titles published every year. When I finally get around to a definitive editions-and-lives Romantics Stevereads post, these volume by Holmes will certainly be on it, complete with the author’s borderline-reverence of his subject (a very common trait in Romantics biographies):

But Coleridge was much more than a Romantic poet: he was also a journalist of genius, a translator, a matchless letter-writer (six volumes), an incomparable autobiographer and self-interrogator in his Notebooks (over sixty surviving between 1794 and his death), a literary critic, a spectacular lecturer, a folklorist, a philosopher, a psychologist (specializing in dreams and creativity), a playwright and dramatic critic, and – that much disputed word – a metaphysician. He was also a travel-writer, a fell-walker, and amateur naturalist with an inspired eye for movement and transformation processes – cloud structures, plant growth, animal activity, light shifts, water changes, wind effects. All these aspects I have tried to bring alive, although Coleridge scholars will know what dreadful chasms … I have perilously skimmed over, in this first volume at any rate.

These little paperback bricks are in some ways the construction-stuff of my entire biography library, so it feels good to give them the praise they deserve! In a little while, I’ll do six more …

Home » stevereads

Six Compact Lives!

By (June 13, 2015) No Comment

nine-lives9

2015 has been blessedly full of whoppingly huge new biographies, and I’ve read as many of them as I could (and I’ve got my lustful eye on the remainder, hoping to devour them before the year ends). I unabashedly love whoppingly huge biographies, but they have one drawback: their printed versions take up a hell of a lot of shelf-space.

When it comes to new books, I increasingly solve this problem in the most effective way possible: I eschew printed versions in favor of electronic ones, which take up no shelf-space, gather no dust, tempt no mice, and fill no crates on moving-day. My trusty e-reader is always with me, fits snugly in my hand, and requires no pen and paper in order to accommodate all the notes I care to write.

But there’s a gap in the e-book world, and it’s a big one, and I doubt anything will ever close it: vast swaths of books printed prior to the digitization of everything never got formatted as e-books and, given their swarms of millions of titles, likely never will. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, thousands and thousands of public-domain titles from Ye Olden Times are available as free and neatly-formatted e-books. And thanks to the demands of the modern market, you can be sure a big new biography of Ronald Reagan or (potato, potahto) Genghis Khan will have a near-simultaneous publication in electronic form. But a 1996 biography of King Alfred the Great? Or a 50-year-old study of historical references in the Sidney Psalter? Digitization requires at least the ghost of a profit motive, and these and countless similar books don’t have one.

So as much as I love a nice full electronic library (I allow myself a discreet $200 a month for e-books), I find my shelves of printed biographies quite full. But one way to manage the space, I’ve found, is to find compact paperbacks of as many mid-range biographies as possible – not the classics, the ones I turn to often, the ones I read as works of literature and not just works of reference, but the ones that fill out a library. Compact lives! Usually printed on cheaper paper and with cheaper bindings, but often representing huge amounts of valuable work on their subjects. Take six examples:

raleighSir Walter Raleigh by Raleigh Trevelyan – This 2002 life of the famed Elizabethan courtier, explorer, and chronic malcontent is one of four Raleigh biographies I currently own; it was published by Penguin, and it’s full of Trevelyan’s spirited evaluations of this staple of historical fiction:

There was nothing effeminate about him. The extravagance and richness of his clothes vastly annoyed his contemporaries, but were part of his attraction for the Queen, who of course could dress far more bizarrely. His armour might be of silver, studded with pearls, diamonds and rubies. He had certainly committed some terrible cruelties in the past, but mostly under orders. He was a byword for vanity and ambition, and was accused of being ‘damnably proud’.

Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert – This Harper victoria hibbertCollins 2001 has neither the sardonic wit of Lytton Strachey nor the heft of Stanley Weintraub nor the odd, chatty wisdom of Lady Longford, but I’m a die-hard fan of jack-of-all-trades Hibbert (I have approximately 150 of his 745 books), and I love his zest and his ability to pull great quotes from his encyclopedic lifetime’s reading:

On the evening of the Queen’s death, the novelist, Henry James, had come out of the Reform Club into Pall Mall. The streets around it seemed to him ‘strange and indescribable’; passers-by spoke in hushed tones as though they were frightened. It was, for him, ‘a very curious and unforgettable impression’. He had not expected to be so moved, since it was, after all, ‘a simple running down of the old used up watch’, the death of an old widow who had thrown ‘her good fat weight into the scales of general decency’.

swift nokesJonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed by David Nokes – This 1985 book from Oxford was for years and years my go-to biography of Swift. The appearance of Leo Damrosch’s biography in 2013 changed that, but Nokes’ book is still a treasure-trove of Swiftiana, and the author’s own analyses are of course unchanged in their wonderful rigor:

Throughout his life Swift adhered to an ideal of conservative humanism which saw specialization itself as a first dangerous step towards that distorted simplification of complex human phenomena which characterized the views of all factions and fanatics. I have therefore attempted to present a portrait of the whole man in his multifarious roles as satirist, politician, churchman and friend and, in particular, have sought to re-establish the balance between his public and private lives which has been missing from some other recent biographies.

Caesar by Christian Meier – Fontana Press brought out this version (translated from caesarthe German by David McLintock) in 1995, and it’s something like the eighth or tenth Julius Caesar biography I own – and it’s of course up against some fierce competition, since Caesar is one of those subjects that tends to bring out the best in even the hacks who write about him (a perfect case-in-point being the volume actually titled Caesar in Colleen McCullough’s series of novels set in ancient Rome; it’s the only book in the series that rises to the level of ‘readable’). Meier can be a leaden writer, but even he is often moved to some nifty insights:

Caesar and his opponents thus represented two disparate realities: the old reality, which had once been the whole and was suddenly reduced to a part, and the new, which had detached itself from the old and could hardly have been realigned with it even if war had been avoided – so wide was the gap, so great the mutual alienation. It was this disparity that characterized the situation – not just conflicting interests, mistrust, fear, hatred, or the pathological exaggeration of individual pretensions.

charles IICharles II by Ronald Hutton – This 1989 volume (also from Oxford) doesn’t actually illustrate the above-mentioned rule about keeping the second-tier also-rans around in paperback, since Hutton’s book is by far the best biography of Charles II ever written; no, in this case the only thing that’s illustrated is my inability to find a hardcover copy of the book! I’ve tape-reinforced this paperback as much as I can, but it’s still going to disintegrate on me, since I re-read it in whole or in part on a regular basis, just to bask in the author’s brilliance:

At his core there lay a vacuum, and what emerges most powerfully from the accounts of those who knew him is a feeling of unreachability, a frustrating instinct that the man inside the king eluded the observer. He suffered no apparent fears of inadequacy. Nor was he, as some have thought, a private melancholic, for he genuinely enjoyed his many pleasures with the same carelessness which he brought to much of the business of ruling and to some of his personal relationships. Yet he remains, for us as for contemporaries, a set of strongly marked characteristics with a cold void at the centre of them. He was a monarch who loved masks, whether of ceremony, of role-playing, or of intrigue. Behind those coverings, something was always missing.

Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes – The same thing applies with this coleridge early visions1989 Penguin paperback: Holmes’ two-volume work is the best thing ever done on Coleridge (in a mighty crowded field), I just haven’t found them both in sturdy hardcovers (nor have they been issued in one big extra-sturdy volume, as they bloody well should). As some of you will know, I have a soft spot for the Romantic poets (and for Lord Byron, the god of their idolatry) and have, over the decades, tried to winnow the really good biographies from the endless gush of titles published every year. When I finally get around to a definitive editions-and-lives Romantics Stevereads post, these volume by Holmes will certainly be on it, complete with the author’s borderline-reverence of his subject (a very common trait in Romantics biographies):

But Coleridge was much more than a Romantic poet: he was also a journalist of genius, a translator, a matchless letter-writer (six volumes), an incomparable autobiographer and self-interrogator in his Notebooks (over sixty surviving between 1794 and his death), a literary critic, a spectacular lecturer, a folklorist, a philosopher, a psychologist (specializing in dreams and creativity), a playwright and dramatic critic, and – that much disputed word – a metaphysician. He was also a travel-writer, a fell-walker, and amateur naturalist with an inspired eye for movement and transformation processes – cloud structures, plant growth, animal activity, light shifts, water changes, wind effects. All these aspects I have tried to bring alive, although Coleridge scholars will know what dreadful chasms … I have perilously skimmed over, in this first volume at any rate.

These little paperback bricks are in some ways the construction-stuff of my entire biography library, so it feels good to give them the praise they deserve! In a little while, I’ll do six more …