I finally finished reading the Steve Jobs’ biography. My boys gave it to me when it was released on my birthday. (Coincidence? I’m not so sure.) Fascinating, inspiring, insightful, and provocative. I don’t expect to ever read a more current biography. It was as if the final chapters were being written when I laid the book on my nightstand. And had I been reading it on an iPad, I almost would have believed it to be true.
That said, three months to read about one life is a long time. But let’s remember there was Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s tucked into that quarter. And let’s remember that Steve Jobs – the analog version between two hardback covers – weighs over two pounds.
So, for stints on planes, trains and automobiles, I opted to travel with lighter fare - by all definitions. But after watching the puzzle pieces of a familiar life unfold so dramatically in that book, I was drawn to other biographies – particularly those of contemporary lives. First up was Tina Fey. I mean really, how can you not read a book named Bossypants? Or for that matter, listen to a song called Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong? Or follow a blog titled Playgroup With…?
After Bossypants and all of its delights, I moved on to Coal Miner’s Daughter, the autobiography of Loretta Lynn. I’m not really a country music fan and can’t even say I’d listened to any Loretta Lynn. But after hearing her leave NPR’s Terry Gross nearly speechless more than once in an interview (find the link here), I knew I had to read it. And it did not disappoint.
It wasn’t until my next book that I noticed a pattern developing. Slim and I were reading in bed. (If that surprises you, then you’re obviously a new reader – welcome.) In a pattern that was cemented probably not long after the honeymoon, he reads aloud the titillating bits from The Economist and asks me what I’m reading.
“Um, Stories I Only Tell My Friends,” I said behind the anonymity of my blue pleather Kindle cover. But Slim pushed for more.
“It’s Rob Lowe’s autobiography,” I admitted.
“So Bossypants was too demanding?” he asked.
And perhaps that was it. I didn’t want demanding. My stack of someday reads includes biographies of Charles Dickens, Ronald Reagan, Charles Darwin, Flannery O’Connor, Louis Armstrong, a second volume on Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, Etta James, and Rudyard Kipling.
But I didn’t choose any of those. I went for three contemporary lives. I wanted to read about people that were if not of my actual era, bios that were of the stories and experiences I was living. I was drawn to books that were perhaps more about the living of a life than the achievement of a given life.
Maybe it's because I've taken myself off of the achievement merry-go-round that I feel an outsider to the men and women doing, leading, innovating, and giving their TED Talks on making a difference. But I know that much of real living happens in the pauses, commas and spaces in between the achievements.
I remember when I had babies, my mother told me about the biography of then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that had just been published. She apparently taught herself Russian while breastfeeding her twins. I wasn’t sure I could even hold a book while I breastfed.
Biography as a genre goes all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh etched on clay tablets in 18th century BC. The stories advanced to include powerful members of the church, then royalty, and then Renaissance artists. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is considered the first American contribution to the field.
The earliest published female life story is harder to find. But the lists are littered with familiar names and achievements – Abigail Adams, Joan of Arc, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony and The Autobiography of Alice b. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (explain to me how that one works?) Of course the oft-cited best selling and most widely read of all female biographies? Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl.
I am sure that each of these women led remarkable lives and made incalculable contributions to history. But some days you don’t want to read about what it’s like to be a teenager living in a secret annex in Amsterdam. Some days you want to read about what it’s like to have a teenager living upstairs in the suburbs.
And that’s the box a well-done contemporary biography or memoir can check. These are people leading fantastically colorful lives – and yet they struggle with the social pressures of parenting, the anxiety of a child with a driver’s license, and pursuing their own goals all the while trying to quiet the unrelenting internal debate, “Am I doing it right?” and its close cousin, “What did I @#!* up today?”
Tina Fey, Loretta Lynn and Rob Lowe write as much about the parts of their lives that are universal as those that set them apart. Loretta Lynn talks about finding a quiet place to write – away from her babies – leaning against the outdoor toilet. Rob Lowe talks about the challenges and charms of parenting his own sons, who are now the same age he was when he starred in The Outsiders.
And this bit of parenting angst is courtesy of Tina Fey:
I thought that raising an only child would be the norm in Manhattan, but my daughter is the only child in her class without a sibling. Most kids have at least two. Large families have become a status symbol in New York. Four beautiful children named after kings and pieces of fruit are a way of saying, “I can afford a four-bedroom apartment and $150,000 in elementary school tuition fees each year. How you livin’?
In their classic guide about how and why we read, How To Read A Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren describe the genre. “Biography, like history, can be a cause of practical, moral action. A biography can be inspiring. It is the story of a life, usually a more or less successful one – and we too have lives to lead.”
And we too have lives to lead.
Hmm. So I’ve got bios of Charles Darwin and Andre Agassi queued up next. I wonder which one I will Open?