Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Me, Myself, and You: Autobiography and Biography Selections

The rise of social media has made autobiographers of us all. I have an app on my phone, Timehop Abe, that sends me an email with my Facebook post from 'this day one year ago.' Do I really need to know that on September 25, 2011 I was playing 'taxi driver' with my four year old?* I do not. But, is it pleasant to be reminded of some tiny snippet of my life that I might otherwise have forgotten? It is.

I like being let behind the curtain - even if it is the curtain of my own faulty memory - and I think this is why I love to read autobiographies and biographies. I know that Tina Fey's father once angrily stormed out of a Pathmark store over a carpet shampoo misunderstanding (Bossypants, Tina Fey) and though I cannot imagine how that piece of knowledge will ever help me in any situation, ever,** I am nonetheless oddly pleased to know it. 

All reading is, in some sense, a journey to see the Wizard. We can't live a thousand lives, so we read that we might experience something beyond our quotidian existences. Fiction provides this extra-animacy, but non-fiction, particularly auto/biography, is arguably more powerful in this regard because the people behind the curtain really exist. If Oz is tangible, what is to stop us from leaving our books behind and becoming 'great and powerful'.  It seems to me that this is the great allure and great promise of the auto/biography.

I've chosen these three titles because I think they are particularly good at lifting the curtain. 

1. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Women loved him; J. Edgar Hoover feared him; he devised a way to destroy the world, and he worked to protect the world from his own creation. J. Robert Oppenheimer's complexities demand a confident, articulate, brilliant biography: Bird and Sherwin deliver. 
American Prometheus walks us through Oppenheimer's life from birth to death; his work on the Manhattan Project appears more than halfway through Bird and Sherwin's biography. This ought to indicate just how profoundly interesting Oppenheimer is: the man who built the atomic bomb has a life which makes that accomplishment merely a midpoint. 

2. Giving up the Ghost: A Memoir, Hilary Mantel
Mantel is the author of Wolf Hall which won, among other awards, the 2009 Booker Prize. So, yes, she is a very talented writer. But, memoirs are slippery things: can we trust our own memories? Can we be trusted to provide the whole truth, or does any recitation of the past merely offer our side of things?  
Mantel admits all of these challenges at the outset, which makes her chronicle of her life (difficult childhood full of abusive nuns; law school; marriage; stints in Africa and Saudi Arabia; debilitating disease; world famous novelist) much more satisfying than a memoir which pretends to be the final word on things:

I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I'll hold out my hands and say, c'est moi, get used to it. I'll trust the reader. This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours.

3. Born Red: A Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution, Gao Yuan
Gao Yuan was in middle school when the Cultural Revolution began. Mao Zedong, however, had empowered young people to destroy the 'ox ghosts and snake spirits' of China's past in order to bring about a new socialist utopia. Students at Yuan's school, therefore, searched for signs of ‘revisionism’ among school authorities. Teachers and administrators who were unpopular or unorthodox were first accused and later forced to make self-criticism. Humiliation, torture, imprisonment and even death were all acceptable means to an ideal end. Yuan makes clear how much of the Cultural Revolution was a matter of personal 'score settling' and how quickly power corrupted its wielders; in a sort of Chinese version of Lord of the Flies, Yuan and his classmates soon turn on each other. 

*Excerpts from that encounter: 'So, I hear you're a fan of dolphins.' 'Gretchen! You have the controls!' You know, typical cab driver banter
**barring a situation where Don Fey leaves me in a Pathmark in which case knowing that he will return would be very helpful to my psyche.

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