A Brief History

eBook - 2007
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Harvard University Press
For what purpose and for whom has biographical pursuit endured, and how does it play such a contested, popular role in contemporary Western culture? Award-winning biographer Hamilton addresses these questions in an incisive and vivid narrative that will appeal to students of human nature and self-representation across the arts and sciences.

For thousands of years we have recorded real lives--the lives of others, and of ourselves. For what purpose and for whom has this universal and timeless pursuit endured? What obstacles have lain in the path of biographers in the past, and what continues to confound biographers today? Above all, how is it that biographies and autobiographies play such a contested, popular role in contemporary Western culture, from biopics to blogs, from memoir to docudrama?

Award-winning biographer and teacher Nigel Hamilton addresses these questions in an incisive and vivid narrative that will appeal to students of human nature and self-representation across the arts and sciences. Tracing the remarkable and often ignored historical evolution of biography from the ancient world to the present, this brief and fascinating tour of the genre conveys the passionate quest to capture the lives of individuals and the many difficulties it has entailed through the centuries. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to American Splendor, from cuneiform to the Internet, from commemoration to deconstruction, from fiction to fact--by way of famous biographical artists such as Plutarch, Saint Augustine, Sir Walter Raleigh, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lord Byron, Sigmund Freud, Lytton Strachey, Abel Gance, Virginia Woolf, Leni Riefenstahl, Orson Welles, Julian Barnes, Ted Hughes, Frank McCourt, and many others--Nigel Hamilton's Biography: A Brief History will change the way you think about biography and real lives.

Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2007
ISBN: 9780674038226
Characteristics: 1 online resource (345 pages) : illustrations
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Sep 06, 2018

This was a very compelling history of the biographical form. Hamilton traces the development of biography through all its purposes, pressures, and accomplishments in history. He argues that biography as we have it today is a way of understanding our own lives and life itself through recounting the lives of others in myriad ways (historic, dramatized, sensational) through various mediums (books, poetry, film, comics, art), and that it is an essential part of democracy.

What made the book so engaging, for me, is that it flits between being academic and general reading. Hamilton is clearly very well read and this book is well-researched, but the text doesn't normally get too heavy. Each chapter is split into a handful of short sections, some of them with whole incredible stories within them about the different people in the history of biography - both the subjects and the authors. It absolutely provides a new perspective on the medium, and champions the need for more serious study of biography as a cross-disciplinary field.

The only fault I can give the book is that it becomes less objective over time and starts to take a very subjective tone, to the point that Hamilton dismisses criticism of modern biography (for its goal of digging up every ounce of private information it can on public figures) without always justifying his fundamental argument that all the different forms of biography add up to a democratic process of evaluating how we feel about life and ourselves. He also slides into giving his own, highly subjective opinion of some of the works he describes, which diminishes the book's potential as an educational work.

As the New York Times review suspects, it sometimes seems Hamilton is justifying his love for the intimate details of personal lives, so much that he borders on defending and validating tabloid rags. At the same time, if you take his argument a certain way, you could say that he is highlighting the overlooked significance of all forms of biography - including sensationalized dirt pieces - in the study of society and of our human struggle to find meaning in life. It still begs the question: does he really want us to broaden the definition of biography so much that it includes the worst of the things he describes?

But any flaw in the writing did not detract from how much I enjoyed the book and how much I learned reading it.

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Sep 06, 2018

9muses thinks this title is suitable for 16 years and over


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