The Saturday Read – Biography

If we read biographies will be be better leaders?

A quick review of President Obama’s reading list includes the life stories of former presidents: Adams, Lincoln and FDR. The number two book this week on The New York Times Business Best Seller list is the new bio, ‘Becoming Steve Jobs’. Last week the Wall Street Journal reviewed ‘Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life’.

“It is not histories I am writing, but lives; the most glorious deeds do not always indicate virtue or vice, but a small thing like a phrase or a jest often reveals more of a character than the bloodiest battles.”  Plutarch, ‘Parallel Lives’

We read biographies to extract the wisdom of others. Biographies offer a portal into understanding the larger world where these lives were lived. Read closely they offer proof that history repeats itself.

“We live – at least in the Western world – in a golden age for biography. The depiction of real lives in every medium from print to film, from radio to television and the Internet is more popular than ever…Biography, today, remains as it has always been, the record and interpretation of real lives – the lives of others and ourselves.”  Nigel Hamilton, ‘How To Do Biography’

The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is not a recommendation of a single title, but a suggestion of a genre.

Despite a well publicized ‘biography kerfuffle’ over a new, ‘unauthorized’ biography of Steve Jobs written by Fast Company reporters, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, it has been the ‘year of biography’, offering a variety of choices, spanning centuries.

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography was awarded to ‘The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe’ by David I. Kertzer. Also nominated as finalists in this category were: ‘Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism’ by Thomas Brothers and ‘Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928’ by Stephen Kotkin.

The LA Times Book Prizes includes a standalone category for biography. This year Andrew Roberts‘Napoleon: A Life’ received the award in a roster of respected nominees including Pulitzer finalist Steve Kotkin along with:

Adam Begley, ‘Updike’

Robert M. Dowling, ‘Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts’

Kirstin Downey, ‘Isabella: The Warrior Queen’

On the Saturday morning of the LA Times Festival of Books I attended a panel moderated by Eisenhower biographer, Jim Newton. Biographers Downey and Kotkin revealed their subjects were very unlikely historical figures. Looking back at their early years, Isabella of Spain and Stalin showed little promise for the lives they would eventually lead. Yet all of these writers crafted stories of actors who emerged onto the global stage amid success, controversy and failure.  A. Scott Berg who published a hefty bio of Woodrow Wilson last year closed the discussion describing the role of biography as “a way to illuminate the times”.

This weekend, select a book from those suggested here or find one about someone you admire and perhaps would like to emulate. Discover a mentor in the pages of biography.

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