At an academic bookshop in Cambridge there is a single section marked "Biography". In prime position on its shelves are biographies as we now know them, followed by autobiography and finally memoir; categories which exist, presumably, in descending order of authorial reliability and merit.
Nearby, at a popular chain bookstore, many of the same titles stand in a bay marked "Family, Abuse, Violence, Incest". In all its incarnations, biography is as popular as ever and this popularity resonates in the art of "life-writing" now taught within the burgeoning discipline of Creative Writing at many universities.
In this intelligent exploration of his own literary field (he is the biographer of Field-Marshal Montgomery and Bill Clinton), Nigel Hamilton demonstrates that the modern understanding of biography as a worthy, reasonably well-secured, if sometimes contentious "life" has never been absolute. A public taste for both writing and consuming personal revelation appears to draw on Freudian introspection and the spectacle of reality TV, but actually has a far longer history.
In antiquity, writers such as Plutarch, Suetonius and Tacitus aimed to get to the true character of a man (it was always men, then, of course) through telling minutiae. The Emperor Domitian stabbing flies with a pen, Caligula's obsession with his thinning hair and Vespasian's attempt to tax urinals brought their subjects to life in a way an inventory of armies and territories could never have achieved.
Even the conflict between authorised and unauthorised biographies is an ancient one. Substitute expensive litigation for almost certain death, and you have Procopius' sixthcentury Secret History: a very alternative version of his sturdy official account of the emperor Justinian and his libidinous wife, Theodora.
It was Dr Johnson who showed what biography could be. In his Lives of the Poets (1779-81), his wit, intellect and Suetonian ability to sketch a man in words expanded the form but he also inspired biography; Boswell's great Life of Johnson made its author's own reputation.
In 18th-century Europe and America, post-revolutionary biography became a lively, populist field incorporating memoir, apologia, essay and …