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Hermione Lee is one of the leading literary biographers in the English-speaking world, the author of widely acclaimed lives of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. Now, in this Very Short Introduction, Lee provides a magnificent look at the genre in which she is an undisputed master--the art of biography. Here Lee considers the cultural and historical background of differentHermione Lee is one of the leading literary biographers in the English-speaking world, the author of widely acclaimed lives of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. Now, in this Very Short Introduction, Lee provides a magnificent look at the genre in which she is an undisputed master--the art of biography. Here Lee considers the cultural and historical background of different types of biographies, looks at the factors that affect biographers, and asks whether there are different strategies, ethics, and principles required for writing about one person compared to another. She also discusses contemporary biographical publications and considers what kind of "lives" are the most popular and in demand. And along the way, she answers such questions as why do certain people and historical events arouse so much interest? How can biographies be compared with history and works of fiction? Does a biography need to be true? Is it acceptable to omit or conceal things? Does the biographer need to personally know the subject? Must a biographer be subjective? About the Series: Combining authority with wit, accessibility, and style, Very Short Introductions offer an introduction to some of life's most interesting topics. Written by experts for the newcomer, they demonstrate the finest contemporary thinking about the central problems and issues in hundreds of key topics, from philosophy to Freud, quantum theory to Islam. ...

Title : Biography: A Very Short Introduction
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780199533541
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 177 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

Biography: A Very Short Introduction Reviews

  • Kevin
    2018-10-02 21:26

    I like this Very Short Introductions because you get a lot of information about a subject in a short period of time, then you can decide from there whether you want or need to read more about the subject. I've been reading more biographies lately so I thought an intro to the subject itself would be interesting. This book covers the critiques people have leveled against biographies and how they have changed over time. Recommended to readers who enjoy a good biography or history lovers.

  • Destiny
    2018-10-18 00:47

    I want to start this by saying that I have just been introduced to Hermione Lee. Although I had looked at this book before I bought it I am not at the moment familiar with her biographies.But even though this is a short book I feel like it gives a complete though admittedly concise picture of biography as genre. It's divided into eight sections which start from Plutarch to the late 21 century. I liked that approach. The first chapter has 10 rules for writing biography of which the last is: There are no rules. I think what Lee is trying to get across is that there are so many different ways to approach a biography and none is better or worst than the last. That's what I get from anyway. There is a bibliography of more books on writing biography that I plan to pursue. I think this book was worth the $7 I paid for it. It'll come in handy.

  • Brian Kohl
    2018-09-21 20:28

    Don't let anyone force you to read any book on life writing longer than Hermione Lee's. Or anything less interesting or more stuck-up than this book. (The Arvon Book of Literary Nonfiction is a great example of being simultaneously more boring and more pretentious). You can't read Lee without immediately wanting to read Boswell's Life of Johnson. I haven't yet gone wrong with the Very Short Introductions series...

  • Patricia
    2018-09-27 04:33

    I'm reading a great deal of material on the history and "how-to" of biography as I work on a life story project of my own. Lee, who has written the biographies of Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, has crammed a great deal of erudite information intoA Biography: Very Short Introduction. I quickly learned to keep the dictionary handy while reading this book. (I can never recall the meaning of the word apotheosis and panegyric was a totally new word for me.) I thoroughly enjoyed her approach to the subject even though it was a great deal more academic that Nigel Hamilton's How to do Biography: A Primer which I'm finding an invaluable guide in my project. First of all, Lee's tone is much less familiar and friendly than Hamilton's. It's a very British tone, and she focuses most of her examples on British biographies and biographers which were often unfamiliar to me. But what I really liked was the structure of her book. She explains her approach this way:"I find . . .[a] progressive model of biography misleading. What I see, rather, is a the continual recurrence, in different contexts, of the same questions of definition, value, and purpose."She then examines these questions in chapters titled for example "Warts and All" and "Fallen Idols." As I move into my project, questions about warts and falling from grace loom large, and so I liberally underlined in pencil Lee's considerations, explanations, and conclusions. Many of these ideas were also discussed in Hamilton's book, but more pragmatically and to some degree less emotionally. In the chapter titled "Public Roles," Lee digs into issues about identity, "impression management" and the subject as performer in contrast to their private self. Of course, my goal like many biographers is to figure out how to connect the two, if indeed I can even discover and learn more about the private self.In any event, this was a powerful and lucrative read, one I thoroughly enjoyed. If you are a reader of biography, this book will be illuminating. And if you are writer of biography, it's a must read.

  • Bookthesp1
    2018-10-01 22:47

    Hermione Lee is very well qualified to write this book as the expert biographer of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and others. Similarly, having to write a short book ( as opposed to her huge doorstop tomes) must have been great discipline and indeed, this is 140 pages plus scholarly notes of densely packed thought and surmise that amounts to a whole lot more. Lee covers many aspects of this form dealing with rules for biography; how these rules are often broken as well as the historical development of the biography as we know it. It is perhaps ironic that the best chapter is probably "against biography" dealing with examples of books that fight the very term. There is amusement as well in her many examples of good and bad volumes. Kitty Kelleys biography of Nancy Reagan was described by one commentator as essentially, "a drive by shooting". Lee's book is engaging, informative and a must for anyone interested in the fascination with biography or celebrity/literary culture. In the age of Facebook and Twitter solipsism appears to be the mode of choice- we are all biographers and autobiographers now. One wonders how the biographers of the future will deal with the social media phenomenon as a primary source- something Lee doesn't muse about. However, its a rare gap in a solid and highly informative discussion of the topic.

  • John Ross
    2018-10-02 00:52

    I purchased this book because I am currently writing a biography and wanted to learn a bit more about the history, variety and techniques related to producing this genre. The author is very knowledgeable of the genre as she has written a biography herself. The book indeed covered the history of biography -- certainly in Great Britain -- the types of biographies, the challenges faced by many specific biographers and provided a number of interesting insights. Perhaps I was hoping for more "this is the problem that the biographer faced and that is how it was solved" insight. Overall, I was glad I read the book and learned something from it -- and was very impressed with the breath of Ms. Lee's knowledge -- and I would recommend it only to those who want a good overview of the genre.

  • Stephanie Marie
    2018-10-21 00:44

    Cute but informative little volume on biography-- it's history, various forms of the genre, and tons of examples. I liked it for it's usefulness, straightforward nature, and references to Virginia Woolf. Needs to be on every English major's shelf.

  • James Klagge
    2018-10-21 01:34

    While not a very short book, this is a short and very good book about biography. (It could be made twenty pages shorter by deleting the fairly pointless illustrations.) The author proceeds often historically, using examples mostly from British literary biographies to illustrate or provide exceptions to various generalizations about biographies. The book is not exactly an introduction, since the author’s examples will far exceed the familiarity of any reader, much less any novice reader. But the author provides an engaging overview of the kinds and purposes of biographies over the centuries. And this leads to a solid and wide-ranging sense of what we are up to when we write and read about the lives of others. The author does not give in to the unfortunately popular academic notion that biography really is fiction after all. Of course, for a biography to be comprehensible it requires a selection of the facts. “No biographer is going to write down every single thing the subject did, said, and thought…or the book would take longer than the life itself” (122). And for a biography to be interesting it requires an arrangement of the selected facts—a storyline. This selection and arrangement makes biography an “artificial construct” (122), since there is no objective sense in which one selection and arrangement is correct. “There is no such thing as an entirely neutral biographical narrative” (134). But this still is a far cry from fiction, also an artificial construct, since what are selected and arranged are facts—or our closest approximations to them—and not inventions. Sometimes the meaning of such facts is open to interpretation. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dying words, spoken in English and reported by his caregiver who had told him his friends would be there to see him tomorrow, were: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” There is no doubt about the fact that he said this; there is considerable doubt about its import. Biographers can offer very different interpretations of this statement depending on the material chosen to surround it. One biographer (Ray Monk) presents it as a caustic remark, another memoirist (Norman Malcolm) as a “strangely moving utterance.” Lacking any other evidence from the caregiver, these interpretations depend for their plausibility on the storyline of which they are a part. Each storyline will see Wittgenstein differently. In one of them his life ends in despair, in the other almost in triumph. But in each case the storylines will build on and arrange incidents taken as or shown to be factual. Certain storylines may be impossible to construct because of the unavailability of relevant evidence (7). (This would not be a problem if biographies really were fiction.) At Wittgenstein’s death, control of his Nachlass passed to three designated executors who, with the tacit approval of such family members as still lived, exercised complete control over the availability of manuscripts and letters for research or publication. One of the executors, Elizabeth Anscombe, wrote, “If by pressing a button it could have been secured that people would not concern themselves with his personal life, I should [i.e., would] have pressed the button….” In fact she saw to it that private passages were blocked out or even destroyed when microfilms of scholarly material were made for researchers in 1968. When other researchers found ways to raise issues about such private matters as Wittgenstein’s sexuality or his struggles during wartime service, presumably through access to material never secured by the executors or by interviews with lesser-known acquaintances or by sheer disobedience, they were often excoriated in the press. Another executor, Rush Rhees, wrote: “…there are certain stories which it would be foul to relate or tell about somebody even if they were true….What is foul is to treat the phrase ‘private life’ as though it were a misnomer.” Apparently family members tried to sue for libel over the publication, but found that libel laws did not protect the dead. Finally, some twenty years later, such controls were lifted, for the sake of full biographies and the eventual digitalization of all Wittgenstein’s manuscripts and letters in CD-ROM. The initial suppression of material ended up giving more attention to poorly defended stories about Wittgenstein’s life than they deserved—precisely because of their air of taboo. But its eventual liberation made way for storylines that tied his wartime service to the Tractatus and that gave his sexuality its rightful but extremely minor place in his life. “Biography is not neutral ground: it arouses strong and passionate feelings” (100). Indeed.Lee’s command of the vast literature of biography ensures that she does not oversimplify her discussion—indeed, she is most comfortable undermining or seeing the complexity behind easy generalizations about biography. Biography needn’t be…only of a person, only of one person, only by another person (6), of the whole life (8), or by someone who knew the subject (11). The later almost goes without saying if biographies are to be written about figures from the more distant past. Apparently the third of Wittgenstein’s executors, Georg Henrick von Wright, felt that his biographer should be someone who had not known Wittgenstein personally. Even recent figures may sometimes be better served by those who did not know them, precisely because they arouse such strong and passionate feelings. Must a biography of an intellectual be written by someone expert in the subject’s field (12)? A strong argument can be made for this in the case of Wittgenstein, whose biographers (McGuinness and Monk) are both well-regarded analytic philosophers. But the waters were muddied when Terry Eagleton, a literary critic, wrote a film script, titled Ludwig Wittgenstein, which was then significantly revised and produced by Derek Jarman, as Wittgenstein. It could be said that Eagleton and Jarman did for Wittgenstein what Aristophanes did for Socrates—present a clever and entertaining portrait that largely misunderstood the philosophy and did more harm than good to the philosopher. That Jarman had no pretension to offering any sort of biography (despite the film’s title) is indicated by the title of his prefatory essay “This is Not a Film of Ludwig Wittgenstein,” where he writes: “My film does not portray or betray Ludwig. It is there to open up.” But Eagleton, in his prefatory essay, proposes that the “true coordinates” of Wittgenstein’s work are “Joyce, Schoenberg, Picasso.” So too, Aristophanes seemed to imply that the true coordinates of Socrates’ work were the Sophists. That Lee does not pronounce on this sort of issue is indicative of her descriptive rather than prescriptive stance on most issues.Lee quotes a biographer as recommending: “If you love your reader and want to be read, get anecdotes!” (59). She certainly follows this recommendation herself, as the wealth of anecdotes that she gleans from the vast sweep of biographies and biographers makes for a fascinating read.

  • Ada
    2018-09-29 03:36

    Hermione Lee’sA Very Short Introduction to Biographyis definitely one of the better short introductions out there. Dame Hermione Lee is a Professor of English Literature at Oxford and a renowned biographer herself. Her book explores different approaches to biography in the Anglophone world. She discusses the history of biography through medieval saints’ lives, Boswell’s biography of Johnson, Victorian biographies of Nelson to Strachey’sEminent Victoriansand Virginia Woolf’s biography of Flush (Elizabeth Barret-Browning’s spaniel). Lee also discusses the psychological implications biography has on the unity of identity through time. The book is well-written and easy to read. I have always thought of reading biographies as a secret guilty pleasure, vindicated only recently when I realized that Virginia Woolf admitted to reading biographies as a way of relaxing after reading fiction“For we are incapable of living wholly in the intense world of the imagination. The imagination is a faculty that soon tires and needs rest and refreshment. But for a tired imagination the proper food is not inferior poetry or minor fiction — indeed they blunt and debauch it — but sober fact, that “authentic information” from which….good biography is made. “Hermione Lee’s book has definitely made me more appreciative of the skill involved in producing a good biography.

  • Bryn (Plus Others)
    2018-10-22 03:48

    I like the Very Short Introductions and this is a fine example of the series. Lee explains her approach (based mostly in biographies of writers as that is what she is familiar with), gives a general overview with some very interesting questions, and then skims over the surface of the history of biography, focusing in on particular books as examples and discussing how they interact with the questions in her overview. It is very well done & I came away from it with a much larger list of biographies to read.

  • Dan
    2018-10-04 22:52

    This book would be more accurately titled “A Short History of British Literary Biography.” If that’s what you are looking for, go for it.But as a Brit might say, it wasn’t my cup of tea.

  • Stuart Hill
    2018-10-20 23:41

    Another strong addition to the Very Short Introductions series, Hermione Lee's book on Biography provides a useful potted history of the genre, ranging from the earliest texts such as the epic of Gilgamesh right up to the present day. Lee begins by setting out the basic 'rules' of writing biographies, whilst conceding that there are really no set rules within a malleable genre. The book goes on to discuss arguments for and against biography-writing and also discusses how certain styles of writing predominated in different historical periods such as hagiography, or the lives of 'great men' such as political leaders.This was both informative and entertaining though inevitably within a short introduction there was no possibility of a completely comprehensive account, so some aspects of the field were only covered briefly whilst others aren't mentioned. It would have been nice to see some sort of comparative analysis of the merits and failings of biographies and autobiographies. There isn't any coverage of diaries either despite the fact that classic examples such as that of Pepys provide some of the fullest portraits of individual character possible.The book's emphasis, unsurprisingly for an academic text, was very much on works devoted to important cultural figures from history. The section on how various approaches have been used to define the significance of the life of Shakespeare was very interesting, particularly due to the author's examination of the subjective and even imaginative interpretations made by biographers. I also enjoyed the part devoted to Boswell and Johnson.If you have more than a passing interest in the genre then this is definitely a worthwhile read, and it may well inspire you to check out some of the classic works it mentions.

  • Bojan Tunguz
    2018-10-10 03:30

    Biography is a story of someone's life, and biographies have been written for as long as people had been interested in lives of others. This very short introduction takes us on a trip throughout centuries at exploring the genre, it's ever evolving conventions and the basic requirements that we expect from all good biographies. The main focus of the book is the British biographies, with a few others used as examples. There are no biographical examples from non-western sources, unless you count those from the Bible. Nonetheless, even with these constraints we get to see a vast variety of approaches to biography. Some biographers had intimate first-hand knowledge of their subject, while other wrote from a vast spatial and temporal distance, relying solely on secondhand sources. Another big difference that biography as a genre has undergone is the change of mores that nowadays puts a stronger stress on disreputable and salacious aspects of one's life. This is a far cry from "exemplary lives" model that had been popular in the past, which had presupposed the purpose of biography to be enlightenment and edification of the public. Reading about biography in abstract can be rather boring. Luckily, this book is replete with examples from various notable biographies. However, if you are not interested in biography as a genre you may not get too much out of reading this book.

  • Carl Rollyson
    2018-10-12 01:44

    This is a competent survey of biography by one of the contemporary masters of the genre. But it is rather dull and surprisingly textbook-like, lacking the verve and sweep of Nigel Hamilton’s recent Biography: A Brief History. Lee limits herself to British biography, except for the unavoidable references to classics such as Plutarch. Chapter titles are not very helpful, and the bibliography omits several recent efforts to deal with both the history and methodology of biography. As a literary biographer Lee concentrates mainly on that narrow range of the genre. And yet with the small font this book is not quite so short as all that. Nevertheless, topics such as Freud’s influence on biography, the disputes about the veracity of life writing, and why the telling of lives excites so much hostility and controversy, are essayed in informative and succinct fashion. Consulted as a reference book, Lee’s work can be a valuable resource for beginners as well as advanced scholars. Lee’s own approach to biography seems entirely conventional, which makes her shy away from more daring psychoanalytical approaches pioneered by Leon Edel and George Painter.

  • BHodges
    2018-09-29 22:31

    Oxford's "Very Short Introduction" series is a ton of fun. Little discussions on huge topics. This particular volume on "Biography" is a little scattered and Britain-centric, but certainly worth reading. It traces some of the uses of biography over time, in addition to discussing methods and seminal works. Most interesting to me were the philosophical questions about selfhood and ownership of others though writing. How much of the craft is literary and how much scientific? Is the "true past" accessible to the biographer? The phrase "warts and all" has become popular in regards to laying everything bear in a book about someone's life. This development has angered some and titillated others. It's a debate worth thinking about when approaching a biographical subject. Try hard not to play tricks on the dead! "So grant him life, but reckon/ That the grave which housed him/ May not be empty now:/ You in his spotted garments/ Shall yourself lie wrapped" (136).

  • Keeko
    2018-09-22 02:49

    Good idea for a book. This is one of those subjects where you think what is there to know about this subject beyond the obvious, and then the writer gives you a pleasant surprise. The part about how the style of writing biographies has changed is interesting. She also did a good job of helping the reader understand just how difficult it is to describe a person. I also like that she mentioned biographies that she finds interesting. I had not heard of most of them, and I'm curious to check them out.

  • Kerry
    2018-09-29 02:26

    Whatever information this book imparts is overshadowed by its wordiness (it is replete with "there are"/"there is" sentence structure) and overall lack of writing quality. Though this book was required reading for a highly insightful class on biography writing and I deeply respected the professor, this book was the low point. Presumably, it was chosen for its brevity, not its readability, though biographers should also strive to be readable and this book doesn't offer such a great example of that.

  • Fred Eisenhut
    2018-10-06 03:35

    A very good introduction about the writing of biography. Lee tells of biographies written long ago and compares them to modern day writings. it is amazing to see that the Bio's reveal more about the writer than the person being written about. Since I love reading these doorstop bio's, this book was very helpful in understanding where the writers were coming from and who they used to understand them.

  • Kit
    2018-10-10 04:48

    This is a terrific book for people who love to read biographies. Lee, an accomplished biographer (V. Woolf and E. Wharton) herself, in the wonderful British traditio, has distilled and described the issues and trends of the biography genre, and suggested reasons why we love it so much. See my essay at for more...

  • Carol
    2018-10-11 00:24

    So much information in such a tiny book. Too much for note taking-- looks like I will have to purchase it.

  • Deborah
    2018-09-25 21:40


  • Linda
    2018-10-10 23:39

    Excellent discussion that demonstrates the challenges, difficulties, and possible approaches to writing biography. Highly recommended to anyone interested in this topic.