The 11 Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2011
Illustrated correspondence, rock’n’roll, and what an old Kurt Vonnegut has to do with a young Hemingway.
By Maria Popova
After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, science books, history books, food books, and psychology and philosophy books, the 2011 best-of series continues with the most compelling, provocative and thought-provoking psychology and philosophy books featured here this year.
In 2004, Steve Jobs asked former TIME Magazine editor and prolific biographer Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Isaacson — who has previously profiled such icons as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger — thought the request not only presumptuous but also odd for a man of Jobs’s age. What he didn’t know was that Jobs had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had starkly brushed up against his mortality. Over the next few years, Isaacson ended up having over 40 interviews and conversations with Jobs, from which he gleaned the backbone for Steve Jobs, his highly anticipated biography — perhaps an expected pick for my omnibus of the year’s best biographers and memoirs, yet very much a deserving one, not merely because Jobs was a personal hero who shaped my own intellectual and creative development, but also because beneath the story of Jobs as an individual lies a broader story about the meat of innovation and creativity at large.
He was not a model boss or human being, tidily packaged for emulation. Driven by demons, he could drive those around him to fury and despair. But his personality and passions and products were all interrelated, just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as if part of an integrated system. His tale is thus both instructive and cautionary, filled with lessons about innovation, character, leadership, and values.”
For a complementary read, see I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words — a wonderful anthology of more than 200 quotes and excerpts from his many appearances in the media over the years.
Just when you thought I couldn’t possibly slip Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout into another best-of reading list — it appeared among the year’s best art and design books, best science books, and best history books — here it is, again. But consider this a measure of its merit: In this cross-disciplinary gem, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science, a pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, and not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. It’s remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.
It’s also a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.
Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.
AND SO IT GOES
Kurt Vonnegut — prolific author, anarchist, Second Life dweller, imaginary interviewer of the dead. And, apparently, troubled soul. At least that’s what’s behind the curtain Charles Shields (of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee fame) peels in And So It Goes, subtitled Kurt Vonnegut: A Life — the first-ever true Vonnegut biography, revealing a vulnerable private man behind the public persona, a difficult and damaged man deeply scarred by his experiences.
The project began in 2006, when Shields reached out to Vonnegut in a letter, asking his permission for a planned biography. Though Vonnegut at first declined, Shields wasn’t ready to take “no” for an answer and eventually persuaded the counterculture hero into a “yes,” spending precious time with Vonnegut and his letters during the last year of the author’s life.
From his uneasy childhood to his tortured divorces to his attempted suicide to his explosion into celebrity, Vonnegut’s life was an intricate osmotic balance between private hell and public performance. As a leading figure in a movement of authors as a public intellectuals and a former PR agent for GE, he knew how to craft an image that would appeal to an audience — an art timelier than ever as we watch some of yesterday’s media pundits voice increasingly disconnected opinions on today’s issues.
He read the signs of what was happening in the country, and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about.” ~ Charles Shields
In a lot of ways, Vonnegut was an embodiment of the spirit behind today’s Occupy movement. Shields observes on NPR:
Kurt was a disenchanted American. He believed in America, he believed in its ideals … and he wanted babies to enter a world where they could be treated well, and he wanted to emphasize that people should be kind to one another.”
But Shields makes a special point not to vilify Vonnegut or frame him as cynical. Beneath the discomfort with this new private persona lies a deep respect for the iconic author and the intricate balance between private demons and public creativity, channelled perhaps most eloquently in this quote from Vonnegut himself, printed on the book’s opening page:
I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. I am myself a work of fiction.”
The downside of And So It Goes is that it perpetuates, all too dangerously in my opinion, the myth of the creative genius as a damaged soul — something Vonnegut’s son has since attacked the book for misportraying. Nonetheless, it remains a powerful, revealing, and ultimately deeply human read.
Originally featured in November.
Every year since 2005, Nicholas Felton has been publishing his wonderful and entertaining annual reports, which capture the minutia of his life — drinks drunk, trips taken, methods of transportation, mood experienced, and just about everything in between — in clean, beautiful infographics. In 2010, however, Felton lost his father and decided to make his annual report a reconstruction of his father’s life based on calendars, letters, slides, postcards, passports, and other ephemera in his possession. The result is a poignant, beautiful, and tender journey into the adventures and qualities of Felton’s father through the unexpected lens of the quantitative.
The report was printed in a limited-edition run of 3,000 and is long sold out, but you can see it online in its entirety.
AN EMERGENCY IN SLOW MOTION
Iconic photographer Diane Arbus is as known for her stunning, stark black-and-white square photographs of fringe characters — dwarfs, giants, nudists, nuns, transvestites — as she is for her troubled life and its untimely end with suicide at the age of 48. Barely a year after her death, Arbus became the first American photographer represented at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In the highly anticipated biography An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, also one of the year’s best photography books, psychologist Todd Schultz offers an ambitious “psychobiography” of the misunderstood photographer, probing the darkness of the artist’s mind in an effort to shed new light on her art. Shultz not only got unprecedented access to Arbus’s therapist, but also closely examined some recently released, previously unpublished work and writings by Arbus and, in the process, fought an uphill battle with her estate who, as he puts it, “seem to have this idea that any attempt to interpret the art diminishes the art.”
Schultz explores the mystery of Arbus’s unsettled existence through five key areas of inquiry — her childhood, her penchant for the marginalized, her sexuality, her time in therapy, and her suicide — underpinned by a thoughtful larger narrative about secrets and sex. Ultimately, Schultz’s feat is in exposing the two-sided mirror of Arbus’s lens to reveal how the discomfort her photographs of “freaks” elicited in the viewer was a reflection of her own unease and self-perception as a hopeless outcast.
Poignant and provocative, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus offers an entirely new way of relating to and understanding one of the most revered and influential postmodern photographers, in the process raising timeless and universal questions about otherness, the human condition, and the quest for making peace with the self.
Originally featured in August.
It’s hard not to adore Tina Fey, who has had a pretty grand year, from becoming the third female and youngest ever recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — and giving a brilliant acceptance speech that unequivocally validates the award — to the publication of Bossypants, her excellent and impossibly funny sort-of-memoir about modern comedy, that whole gender thing and, well, life.
Once in a generation a woman comes along who changes everything. Tina Fey is not that woman, but she met that woman once and acted weird around her.”
In April, Fey brought Bossypants to the fantastic Authors@Google. Besides Fey’s lovable brand of awkward, it’s particularly priceless to watch Google’s Eric Schmidt — who’s had quite a year himself — fumble with various politically incorrect phrases and, you know, “women things.”
Originally featured in April.
YOUNG HEMINGWAY’S LETTERS
Though neither exactly a memoir nor exactly a biography, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922 captures the lived experience and biographical milestones of the iconic author’s life through the unusual lens of his previously unpublished correspondence. After spending a decade sifting through Hemingway’s correspondence, Penn State professor Sandra Spanier collaborated with Kent State University’s Robert W. Trogdon to curate this first in what will be a series of at least 16 volumes, peeling away at a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works.
Though Hemingway had articulated to his wife in the 1950s that he didn’t want his correspondence published, his son, Patrick Hemingway, says these letters could dispel the myth of the writer as a tortured figure and distorted soul, a pop-culture image of his father he feels doesn’t tell a complete and honest story. (Note the contrast with the Vonnegut biography above.)
My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date […] [My father] was not a tragic figure. He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.” ~ Patrick Hemingway
The letters — lively, quirky, full of doodles and delightfully unusual spellings — cover everything from Hemingway’s childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, to his adventures as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in WWI to the heartbreak of his romance with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky and his eventual marriage to Hadley Richardson.
From lovers to rivals to his mother, the recipients of the letters each seem to get a different piece of Hemingway, custom-tailored for them not in the hypocritical way of an inauthentic social chameleon but in the way great writers know the heart, mind, and language of their reader. The letters thus become not only a tender homage to this unknown Hemingway, revealing new insights into his creative process along the way, but also a bow before the lost art of letter-writing itself.
Originally featured in October.
For the past 10 years, Rolling Stone Keith Richards has been consistently chosen in music magazine list after music magazine list as the rocker most likely to die. And, yet, he hasn’t. Instead, he has recorded his rocking, rolling, riveting story in Life — a formidable 547-page tome of a memoir that traces his tale from his childhood in the grey suburbs of London, to the unlikely formation and rapid rise of the Stones (who, at their peak, didn’t finish a single show in 18 months, playing five to ten minutes before the teenage fans started screaming, then the fainting, then getting piled unconscious on the stage by the security), to the drugs and the disillusionment and the ultimate downfall. Funny, difficult, touching, harrowing, mischievous, the narrative — written with the help of James Fox — spans the entire spectrum of emotion and experience, only to always return to its heart: the love of rock.
You try going into a truck stop in 1964 or ’65 or ’66 down south or in Texas. It felt much more dangerous than anything in the city. You’d walk in and there’s the good ol’ boys and slowly you realize that you’re not going to have a very comfortable meal in there… They’d call us girls because of the long hair. ‘How you doing, girls? Dance with me.’ Hair… the little things that you wouldn’t think about that changed whole cultures.”
Best paired with Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which came out late last year.
Legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman is a longtime favorite, his insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity pure gold. Feynman is a charming, affectionate, and inspiring graphic novel biography from librarian by day, comic nonfictionist by night Jim Ottoviani and illustrator Leland Myrick, also one of the year’s best science books and a fine addition to our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.
From Feynman’s childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project to the infamous Challenger disaster, by way of quantum electrodynamics and bongo drums, the graphic narrative unfolds with equal parts humor and respect as it tells the story of one of the founding fathers of popular physics.
Colorful, vivid, and obsessive, the pages of Feynman exude the famous personality of the man himself, full of immense brilliance, genuine excitement for science, and a healthy dose of snark.
Originally featured, with more images, in October.
MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN
Why do we remember, and how? Is there a finite capacity to our memory reservoir? Can we hack our internal memory chip? Those questions are precisely what science writer Joshua Foer sought to unravel when he set out to cover and compete in the U.S. Memory Championship. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is his fascinating sort-of-memoir, telling the story of his journey as he became enthralled by the secrets of the participants and learned how to play with the pre-wired quirks of the brain, optimizing it to remember information it ordinarily wouldn’t. (It’s also a fine addition to the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.)
The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship—specifically it’s a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it’s such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that’s pretty much unforgettable.” ~ Joshua Foer
In the process of studying these techniques, I learned something remarkable: that there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I’m talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it’s possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.” ~ Joshua Foer
Originally featured in March.
Between September 1968 and October 1969, Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton — set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer. Over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.
This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art. Though neither a biography of Gorey nor a memoir by Neumeyer, it’s a delightful and revealing blend of both, full of intellectual banter and magnificent illustrations, and is also one of the year’s finest art and design books.
In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer
Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.
There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:
This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”
Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.
Originally featured, with more wonderful illustrations, in September.
Published December 27, 2011