How to Do Biography: A Primer

Article excerpt

How to Do Biography: A Primer, by Nigel Hamilton. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-674-02796-1. Hardcover, 379 pages.

According to Nigel Hamilton, "We live--at least in the Western world--in a golden age for biography" (p. 1). The author of this beautifully written guide for the novice biographer asserts that recounting real lives via print, film, radio, television, and the Internet has never been more popular. The reason is for this growth, as he sees it, is the hunger for useful knowledge. He references Dr. Samuel Johnson's point of view that the goal of biography is "to penetrate to the moral core of a life, to interpret it--and thereby not only learn facts and information, but acquire insight and lessons that could be serviceable in one's own life, either as warnings or inspiration (p. 11). Although primarily addressing biography, Hamilton also deals briefly with autobiography and memoirs.

How to Do Biography is organized into three sections. The first part deals with important considerations to explore at the outset. It covers topics such as identifying your motivation for undertaking biography, defining your audience, researching your subject and options in shaping the biography you intend to write. Hamilton is well qualified to address these and other critical topics in regard to biography as he is a prize-winning author who has just published the second volume in a three volume life story of former President Bill Clinton. However, he draws not only on his own experience and expertise but also makes his points by using examples from some of the finest biographies ever written. He quotes from the works of both classical and modern biographers, including Plutarch, Holroyd, Strachey, Edel, and Pearson, to name a few.

Hamilton's advice is sound. For example, in regard to audience, he suggests that the biographer's constant concern should be keeping the reader in mind and that audience expectations differ depending on the type of audience--general, specialist, or academic. …