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Here, six eminent biographers explain the pleasures and problems of their craft of reconstructing other people's lives. The result is a book rich in anecdote and in surprising new information about a variety of famous Americans. David McCullough takes us along on the exhilarating journey to Missouri to find "The Unexpected Harry Truman." Richard B. Sewall describes his twent Here, six eminent biographers explain the pleasures and problems of their craft of reconstructing other people's lives. The result is a book rich in anecdote and in surprising new information about a variety of famous Americans. David McCullough takes us along on the exhilarating journey to Missouri to find "The Unexpected Harry Truman." Richard B. Sewall describes his twenty-year search for the elusive poet, Emily Dickinson. Paul C. Nagel tells us about "The Adams Women" - four generations of women he came to admire while writing his earlier biography of the Adams family. Ronald Steel, author of a much-honored biography of the nation's greatest journalist, recalls in "Living with Walter Lippman," how the life of the biographer can become entwined with that of his subject. Jean Strouse, on the trail of J. P. Morgan, discusses the fact that "there are two reasons why a man does anything, a good reason and a real reason." Robert A. Caro reveals the frustrations of trying to unearth the true facts about Lyndon Johnson, a man who went to great pains to conceal them. Together, these six biographers take us through a gallery of unique American lives - most of them moving, many of them startling, and all of them extraordinary.


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Here, six eminent biographers explain the pleasures and problems of their craft of reconstructing other people's lives. The result is a book rich in anecdote and in surprising new information about a variety of famous Americans. David McCullough takes us along on the exhilarating journey to Missouri to find "The Unexpected Harry Truman." Richard B. Sewall describes his twent Here, six eminent biographers explain the pleasures and problems of their craft of reconstructing other people's lives. The result is a book rich in anecdote and in surprising new information about a variety of famous Americans. David McCullough takes us along on the exhilarating journey to Missouri to find "The Unexpected Harry Truman." Richard B. Sewall describes his twenty-year search for the elusive poet, Emily Dickinson. Paul C. Nagel tells us about "The Adams Women" - four generations of women he came to admire while writing his earlier biography of the Adams family. Ronald Steel, author of a much-honored biography of the nation's greatest journalist, recalls in "Living with Walter Lippman," how the life of the biographer can become entwined with that of his subject. Jean Strouse, on the trail of J. P. Morgan, discusses the fact that "there are two reasons why a man does anything, a good reason and a real reason." Robert A. Caro reveals the frustrations of trying to unearth the true facts about Lyndon Johnson, a man who went to great pains to conceal them. Together, these six biographers take us through a gallery of unique American lives - most of them moving, many of them startling, and all of them extraordinary.

30 review for Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Brown

    How, exactly, do biographers do what they do? This book records the lectures of six eminent biographers given in the winter of 1985 at the New York Public Library, wherein they discuss their fascination with their subjects, offer insights into their lives, and elucidate a bit of the process that goes into the production of biographical works. The opening essay, David McCullough talking about his research into Harry Truman, is probably a contender for the best piece in the book. McCullough makes t How, exactly, do biographers do what they do? This book records the lectures of six eminent biographers given in the winter of 1985 at the New York Public Library, wherein they discuss their fascination with their subjects, offer insights into their lives, and elucidate a bit of the process that goes into the production of biographical works. The opening essay, David McCullough talking about his research into Harry Truman, is probably a contender for the best piece in the book. McCullough makes the observation that "Harry Truman lived seventy years of his life in Jackson County, Missouri. ... So it stands to reason that if you want to understand Harry Truman, you'd better know a good deal about Jackson County, Missouri, and you'd better know a good deal about the people there who mattered to him, but just when he was growing up, but during his whole life" (28). A biographer or historian, McCullough says, must "know what you write about, to get beneath the surface. You have to know enough to know what to leave out. ... And you have to know a great deal that you can't get from books - especially from other people's books on the same subject, or even from printed records, such as letters, diaries, and contemporary newspaper accounts. You have to know the territory. You have to go to the place" (29). And so it was that McCullough made considerable visits to Jackson County. "In my work I talk to people who talked to people who came up the Missouri River in the 1840s - to Jackson County, Missouri, when Jackson County, Missouri, was the frontier" (38). McCullough visited the physical sites that marked Truman's life there, like the church where he met his future wife, the courthouse where he became a county judge, the railroad station that sent him off to war and saw his return. "To know your subject it helps to know his neighbors ... And sometimes they tell you things that are true, and sometimes they tell you things that aren't. ... Sometimes one remark in an interview can change everything" (39). Beyond immersion in the physical and cultural environment, McCullough suggests, a biographer should begin "by reading what other people have written. And you try to get through all that as soon as you can. My process is to make a detailed chronology of the whole life, almost a working diary of what he was doing year by year - even day by day if it's an important period". The biographer must then "move quickly into what are known as the primary sources - original letters, diaries, and documents that date from the time" (35). And McCullough at the time used an organizational filing system, creating files on every subject the book might cover, as well as "a biographical file on every character of any consequence who will appear in the book - hundreds of people eventually. It's as if you're building a detective case" (55). McCullough also advises that "a biographer must genuinely care about his subject, because as biographer you're living with that person every single day. It's as if you were choosing a spouse or a roommate" (33-34). Similarly helpful was the last chapter, by acclaimed biographer Robert Caro, mainly discussing his research into Lyndon B. Johnson and all of his complexities. Caro's key piece of advice turns out to essentially boil down to 'McCullough, but MORE!' For Caro, too, stresses the importance of the real physical and cultural environment, but Caro went much further. Years into his research, after repeated visits to the Hill Country of Texas, he realized that the culture there was so different from what he was accustomed to that, in order to effectively get the sense of it, he'd have to move there. So he and his wife Ina "moved to a house on the edge of the Hill Country, and for parts of three years I lived there with Ina, driving to lonely ranches and farms to interview the people who grew up and went to college with Lyndon Johnson and helped make up his first political machine" (203). It was only once Caro had been there over a month, when the locals could see he "wasn't just one more reported coming through for a month and then going back to write the definitive work on what the Hill Country was like" that "they started talking more frankly" (219). Nor, without this measure, could Caro ever have appreciated what Johnson meant to them. Over and over again, his interviewees repeated: "He brought the lights" - referring to how Johnson, as a congressman, managed to bring the electric grid to the Hill Country, which changed everything. Caro had the old women and old men of the community actually show him how they did their daily tasks in the pre-electrical era - he spent time hauling water buckets up from wells and scrubbing clothes on a washboard and ironing over a wood stove, and seeing the physical impact it had on the shoulders of those who grew up doing the same (204-209). The other four biographers have a bit less to offer to an aspiring colleague, nor do they have quite the same level of acclaim. Richard Sewall, a biographer of Emily Dickinson, spent more time describing how "in the beginning I didn't go searching for Emily Dickinson; she went searching for me" (65). In 1945, when Millicent Todd Bingham edited a new collection of 660 hitherto unpublished Dickinson poems, Sewall was offered the chance to review it. "What I didn't know was that Mrs. Bingham had been searching for someone to write a biography of Emily Dickinson," and so began the allurement and the revelation that Millicent's mother, the original editor of Emily's poetry, had had an affair with Emily's brother Austin (66-68). Paul C. Nagel, a group biographer of the women in the Adams family, says more about his subjects than about his work, but adds that "doing biography is as much an artistic calling as struggling with ideas. ... In a good biography, readers must be coaxed to see many features for themselves - points that perhaps the writer doesn't care to emphasize. ... One of the great joys of biography is that if it succeeds, the author and the reader have each contributed to understanding some of the universals that are implicit in every life. The struggle between good and evil, for instance, is at the heart of the biographical drama, but it is necessarily so delicate and touching that many readers are chilled by the social-scientific treatment of it. ... Biography in its great moments, long ago and now, has never ignored the mind and motive of the subject" (104). Ronald Steel, biographer of political commentator Walter Lippmann, put more focus on the ways in which "a biographer and his subject are ... both partners and antagonists - at least when the subject of the biography is very much alive and exceedingly interested in the results" (123). Steel discusses the various forms of collaboration and conflict that the pair had during the five years of their working relationship, and the difficulty of tracking down living relatives that Lippmann denied the existence of, and even eventually making contact with Lippmann's ex-wife. Finally, Jean Strouse, biographer of Alice James (sister to William James and Henry James) and of J. Pierpont Morgan, meanders much more considerably in contrasting 19th- and 20th-century approaches to biography; turns to the challenges of writing a biography of a person who spent much of her life confined to a sickbed and then of a very prominent public figure ("after spending five interesting years thinking and writing about a powerless female invalid in a family of intellectuals, I wanted a complete change - and ended up with the most powerful man of the late nineteenth century" [173]); and meditates on discerning the real motives and reasons for a life's development as opposed to the stated motives and reasons. All the James siblings reflected on their mother's many virtues, and yet Strouse observed that "all five of her children suffered most of their lives with crippling emotional troubles. Depression, nervous breakdown, alcoholism, homosexuality, and various psychosomatic ailments were on the collective list. ... Mary James seems to have been a cold, practical, supervisory mother, who had little sympathy for any sign of weakness and no patience with the frequent illnesses that plagued her children" (175). Consequently, "the mothers in Henry James's novels are grasping, selfish, demanding, often terrifying creatures" (176-177). Strouse suggests that modern biography "tells us not how to live, but how other people, in all their interesting, quirky, original variety, have lived. ... Maybe, in fact, biography is uniquely equipped just now to look at the fragments and chaos of the past through methods of modern inquiry - careful research into primary sources, fresh angles of approach, skepticism, special kinds of 'listening' for new evidence - and to shape out of those materials a narrative whole with a human life at its center" (185). Needless to say, the insights of McCullough and Caro are the most helpful on exactly how one might undertake that project. But from these six taken together, the aspiring biographer (or, I suppose, those merely curious about biographers) can glean a fair number of helpful tips on how to conceptualize his/her task and how to go about it, navigating its challenges and seizing upon its opportunities. Interviews, reading, archival research, environmental immersion, reading between the lines, interpersonal skills, even some manual labor - all crop up as tools in the biographer's arsenal. A useful book, therefore; I'm glad to have read it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ivan

    Splendid talks (adapted to the written word by William Zinsser) by Robert Caro (on LBJ) and David McCullough (on Truman), among others. In the mid-80s, Caro was in the middle of his LBL trilogy (which we now know will be five volumes!) and McCullough had yet to write his Adams biography. I loved reading about Caro’s move to the Hill Country in Texas, where for three years he lived among the people there, and it finally clicked for him why LBJ was so esteemed and why children were named after him Splendid talks (adapted to the written word by William Zinsser) by Robert Caro (on LBJ) and David McCullough (on Truman), among others. In the mid-80s, Caro was in the middle of his LBL trilogy (which we now know will be five volumes!) and McCullough had yet to write his Adams biography. I loved reading about Caro’s move to the Hill Country in Texas, where for three years he lived among the people there, and it finally clicked for him why LBJ was so esteemed and why children were named after him. He brought them electricity as a young congressman from the tenth district—and he finally understood, as someone who took electricity for granted in NYC, why that mattered.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lyn Elliott

    Six American biographers talk about their approaches to biography, why they chose their subjects, and what matters most to them as writers of biographies. Robert Caro, talking of the first volume of his biography of LYNDON Johnson’s says: “I was never interested in writing biographies merely to tell the lives of famous men. I never had the slightest interest in doing that. From the first time I thought of becoming a biographer, I conceived of biography as a means of illuminating the times and the Six American biographers talk about their approaches to biography, why they chose their subjects, and what matters most to them as writers of biographies. Robert Caro, talking of the first volume of his biography of LYNDON Johnson’s says: “I was never interested in writing biographies merely to tell the lives of famous men. I never had the slightest interest in doing that. From the first time I thought of becoming a biographer, I conceived of biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times - particularly political power. A biography will only do that, of course, if the biography is of the right man.” He did indeed choose the right man for his purpose, revealing the dark side of Johnson as well as the good things he did, such as bringing electricity to the poor hill country of Texas. Jean Strouse, who wrote about Alice James, invalid sister of Henry and William, headed her lecture The Real Reasons. She introduced her talk with comments on modern biography: “In trying to see some of the reasons why people do the things they do, modern biography operates at the intersections of public and private experience. It examines the ways in which character affects and is affected by social circumstance. And it asks how, in very specific contexts, particular people go through the processes of their lives.” As well as meditations on the nature and processes of biography, each writer talked briefly about their subjects. It’s a fascinating little book, ideal for reading in snatches. I read it in iBooks and wish I had a hard copy to refer to easily. Excerpt from Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography William Zinsser https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/extr... This material may be protected by copyright.

  4. 5 out of 5

    John

    This is a book for those who enjoy biographies and wish to learn more about the craft and the challenges, along with a look at the individuals who are their subjects. These are not essays, but speeches (or lectures, as they say) that these biographers gave in 1985. The two best are Richard Sewall's talk about Emily Dickinson and David McCullough's talk about Harry Truman. Sewall's was particularly fascinating because he worked with someone whose parents were actual contemporaries of Emily Dickins This is a book for those who enjoy biographies and wish to learn more about the craft and the challenges, along with a look at the individuals who are their subjects. These are not essays, but speeches (or lectures, as they say) that these biographers gave in 1985. The two best are Richard Sewall's talk about Emily Dickinson and David McCullough's talk about Harry Truman. Sewall's was particularly fascinating because he worked with someone whose parents were actual contemporaries of Emily Dickinson, so it is a time travel-like essay that brings Dickinson to life perhaps as much as his biography did. The current price drop to $1.99 for the Nook edition at Barnes & Noble makes this a good buy as well as a good read.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    This contains some really interesting insights into how a biography is created. This book is the transcript from a series of 6 lectures that were held in the New York Public Library back in 1985, featuring 6 biographers describing either a past biography they wrote or the one they were currently working on at the time. I enjoy reading biographies and feel that there are important lessons that can be learned from the life experiences of any person. This gave me a particular interest in reading th This contains some really interesting insights into how a biography is created. This book is the transcript from a series of 6 lectures that were held in the New York Public Library back in 1985, featuring 6 biographers describing either a past biography they wrote or the one they were currently working on at the time. I enjoy reading biographies and feel that there are important lessons that can be learned from the life experiences of any person. This gave me a particular interest in reading this series of lectures because I was curious about the way in which biographies are written. Now I want to read all the biographies mentioned in this book! A few selections of my favorite quotes: "Good biographers combine the arts of the novelist, the detective work of the historian and the insights of the psychologist." "...the single most important element in biography - the delineation of character." "I've often thought that the best way to define a man's character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says, 'This is the real me!'" "...the severest requirement imposed on a biographer is humility. Writing about another person's life is an awesome task, so one must proceed with a gentleness born from knowing that the subject and the author share the frailties of human mortality." "Look at what the author is not telling you. I suppose the fact that a person will even write an autobiography is revealing. I doubt that Abraham Lincoln would have ever written an autobiography. There is always some self-serving going on." David McCullough, speaking of Independence, Missouri, where Harry Truman lived most of his life: "It was the real "Eden of America" everybody dreamed of." When a friend who worked in the publishing industry visited Harry Truman after he had left the White House and found him sitting in a chair between two stacks of books: "'Mr. President, as a publisher, I'm so pleased to see that you are buying all those books. I suppose you read yourself to sleep at night.' He said, 'No, young man, I read myself awake.'"

  6. 4 out of 5

    Harley

    If you love to read biographies, you need to read this book. The book is a collection of six lectures delivered in the winter of 1985 by 6 people who either wrote or were writing a biography. The biographers include David McCullough, Robert B. Sewall, Paul C. Nagel, Ronald Steel, Jean Strouse, and Robert Caro. My favorite talks were by David McCullough on Harry S. Truman and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson. Here are a few of my favorite quotes: "There are two reasons why a man does anything. There's If you love to read biographies, you need to read this book. The book is a collection of six lectures delivered in the winter of 1985 by 6 people who either wrote or were writing a biography. The biographers include David McCullough, Robert B. Sewall, Paul C. Nagel, Ronald Steel, Jean Strouse, and Robert Caro. My favorite talks were by David McCullough on Harry S. Truman and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson. Here are a few of my favorite quotes: "There are two reasons why a man does anything. There's a good reason and there's the real reason." (p. 12) "I believe very strongly that essence of writing is to know your subject." (DM) p. 27 "It's much more important to listen when you're interviewing people than to worry about what questions you're going to ask." (DM) p. 45 "I've come to appreciate that doing biography is as much an artistic calling as struggling with ideas." (PN) p. 101 "The best biographies have always told wonderful stories." (JS) p. 164 "Good biographers combine the arts of the novelist, the detective work of the historian and the insights of the psychologist." (JS) p. 164 "If you always tell the truth, you don't need memos to remember what you said." Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House of Representatives. p. 214 I highly recommend this book to all who love biographies.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Madonna

    Biography writing Interesting if you want to get some ideas on how to approach writing a biography. It was not what I expected when I downloaded the book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Olivia

    Very intriguing facts stemming from those with an interesting/boring profession: biographer. I never really thought of that profession as very interesting until reading this book. Now I am intrigued by the profession.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Joy H.

    Added 1/3/17. (first published 1986) I'd love to find an audio version of this book! 1/3/17-I posted the following at my Goodreads group today: ================================== Today I came across something which said that a good question to ask people is: "What did your father do for a living?". I read that today while "looking inside" a book online. The book is Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography. If I remember correctly, it was in an email ad for "book deals". The link Added 1/3/17. (first published 1986) I'd love to find an audio version of this book! 1/3/17-I posted the following at my Goodreads group today: ================================== Today I came across something which said that a good question to ask people is: "What did your father do for a living?". I read that today while "looking inside" a book online. The book is Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography. If I remember correctly, it was in an email ad for "book deals". The link is: https://www.amazon.com/Extraordinary-... When you "look inside" the book, there's a lot of interesting reading (with anecdotes) about how the authors of biographies go about their business of collecting info. FROM MY GROUP AT: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/... [Message #254] =================================== PS-You can download a free Kindle sample of the book at the following link: https://www.amazon.com/Extraordinary-...

  10. 4 out of 5

    Henry Sturcke

    Another of the four volumes of the Craft of Writing series, this volume publishes six lectures given at the New York Public Library in the winter of 1985. As well as insights into the lives of those portrayed, the lectures offer a glimpse of how biographers work, both the habits such as visiting the locales where the subject lived and worked, combing archives, and interviewing people who knew the subject, as well as in the sense of the moral compass that guides a biographer in dealing with the l Another of the four volumes of the Craft of Writing series, this volume publishes six lectures given at the New York Public Library in the winter of 1985. As well as insights into the lives of those portrayed, the lectures offer a glimpse of how biographers work, both the habits such as visiting the locales where the subject lived and worked, combing archives, and interviewing people who knew the subject, as well as in the sense of the moral compass that guides a biographer in dealing with the life of another person. Recommended.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Susan Albert

    As a writer of biographical fiction, I rely on the work of biographers, who do the basic research on people's lives. Extraordinary Lives offers fascinating insight into the widely differing challenges, commitments, and conundrums faced by six different biographers. I love books that help me understand other books; for me, this book is a treasury of ideas. As a writer of biographical fiction, I rely on the work of biographers, who do the basic research on people's lives. Extraordinary Lives offers fascinating insight into the widely differing challenges, commitments, and conundrums faced by six different biographers. I love books that help me understand other books; for me, this book is a treasury of ideas.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

    Fascinating look into writing a biography by 6 eminent authors. Authors are generally told to write to a subject they know. Here the authors state the opposite. Choose a subject and exhaustively research your subject.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    This book is probably designed to the art of writing a biography but the biographers gave interesting detail of the people they were writing about too.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Joy Cagil

    This is one of the most fascinating and memorable books I have ever read. The book has been compiled from the lectures given in The New York Public Library on six Monday evenings in the winter of 1985 and edited by William Zinsser. The six speakers were all prominent biographers and while they talked about their calling, they also presented facts about their subjects. The foreword of the book by Zinsser is eye-opening for those of us who take good biographers for granted. In it, Zinsser says a d This is one of the most fascinating and memorable books I have ever read. The book has been compiled from the lectures given in The New York Public Library on six Monday evenings in the winter of 1985 and edited by William Zinsser. The six speakers were all prominent biographers and while they talked about their calling, they also presented facts about their subjects. The foreword of the book by Zinsser is eye-opening for those of us who take good biographers for granted. In it, Zinsser says a dependable biographer has to find the real reason his subject does anything, keeping in mind that reality is not only about the facts but the interrelationships of facts. The six biographers and their subjects are: David McCullough writing about Truman and Teddy Roosevelt; Robert B. Sewall writing about Emily Dickinson; Paul C. Nagel writing about the Adams women, mainly Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams the wife of John Quincy Adams and Abigail Adams, John Adams' wife and John Quincy's mother; Ronald Steel writing about Walter Lippmann, political columnist and Pulitzer winner; Jean Strouse writing about Alice James and financier J. Pierpont Morgan; Robert A. Caro writing about Lyndon Johnson. The lectures were about the art of biography writing, which is very tough and time-consuming, and most of these biographers compared or contrasted their works with those of other biographers, as well as making clear their views on their art and the difficulty and comprehensiveness their research took. For example, Robert A. Caro, in order to get the feel of Lyndon Johnson’s background went to live in Johnson's childhood town for three years, to make Johnson’s townsfolk trust him with their stories. Some of the authors believed in sticking to strict facts while others didn’t see any problems with educated conjecture. Most of the time, I believe, they did get beneath the surface of events and actions, and through it all, they tried to stay objective, but according to what I understood from their words, their lives and feelings did become tied to the personalities of the people they were researching. While I was growing up, we were asked to read biographies to be charmed and inspired by the bigger-than-life personalities that the biographies portrayed. At the end of this book, however, I came to the conclusion that a biography is not a chronicle and a biographer’s job is not to write a tribute or become reverential to his subject but to interpret the life of the person as to his character, actions, and will. In the same vein, as one of the biographers said, every age gets the biographies it deserves.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Yaaresse

    Transcribed from a series of talks given at New York Public Libraries in the mid-1980s, five biographers discuss the art and craft of writing biography, their approaches to the genre, and the surprises they found along the way to writing some of the best biographies of the 20th century. This was a free book on Amazon at the time I procured it, so I figured I wasn't out anything to gamble on reading it. As it turns out, I found it fascinating and filled with interesting tidbits of information abo Transcribed from a series of talks given at New York Public Libraries in the mid-1980s, five biographers discuss the art and craft of writing biography, their approaches to the genre, and the surprises they found along the way to writing some of the best biographies of the 20th century. This was a free book on Amazon at the time I procured it, so I figured I wasn't out anything to gamble on reading it. As it turns out, I found it fascinating and filled with interesting tidbits of information about both the writers and their subjects. One thing that stuck with me is that every one of these authors knew that they would be dedicating years of work to their books in research time and probably a couple more years in the writing and editing process. And they all seemed to accept that time investment as necessary to doing good work. There was none of this "write your book in 30 days nonsense" or expectation of being able to do justice to a person's life in short order. The other thing I noticed is that all of these authors were conscious of their position versus the subject, whether or how to translate source documents without making the book more about their process and opinion than about the subject. That probably explains a lot about the differences between the non-fiction of today with it's shallow and author-centric tendencies and how it often tries to buddy up the the reader through authorial commentary and chatty style -- and the more in-depth, document-dependent, linear style of biography from the last century. Frankly, I miss the older style in which the writer prided him or herself on quality rather than quantity and facts (or informed and document-backed opinions) rather than making the book all about themselves.

  16. 5 out of 5

    courtenay w. hall

    Excellent: lucid and interesting This modest book was a genuine delight. Lucid is, of course, superfluous when a writing is edited by Willam Zinsser. But the clarity and focus of these writers' discussions of their craft and their subjects are just so strong in this book. Mr. Zinsser's introduction sets the stage: Monday nights with biographers talking about the craft of biography. What sounds somewhat dull becomes separate windows into the methods these people used to investigate and create their Excellent: lucid and interesting This modest book was a genuine delight. Lucid is, of course, superfluous when a writing is edited by Willam Zinsser. But the clarity and focus of these writers' discussions of their craft and their subjects are just so strong in this book. Mr. Zinsser's introduction sets the stage: Monday nights with biographers talking about the craft of biography. What sounds somewhat dull becomes separate windows into the methods these people used to investigate and create their works. I was attracted to this work for the opportunity to read Robert Caro's lecture about his biography of Lyndon Johnson. What i found was the gift of six authors talking about their very different subjects and the significant challenges of discovering their subjects' realities. What a genuine treat was this lecture series for its participants and audience. What a gift is this book for the rest of us; now, we can share those Monday evenings and use them to assist us in reading the cited works and others. Mr. Zinsser, thank you.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Len Knighton

    This book is a collection of speeches made by outstanding biographers telling their audience, and us, about their latest project and processes of writing. I particularly enjoyed reading about the research done by the authors, whether it was interviewing those who knew the subject or delving deep into the archives, the treasure of letters, newspaper and magazine articles, other books, etc. There are always surprises to be discovered when writing about the life of a person. The authors reveal some This book is a collection of speeches made by outstanding biographers telling their audience, and us, about their latest project and processes of writing. I particularly enjoyed reading about the research done by the authors, whether it was interviewing those who knew the subject or delving deep into the archives, the treasure of letters, newspaper and magazine articles, other books, etc. There are always surprises to be discovered when writing about the life of a person. The authors reveal some although they may not be surprising now as this book was put together more than 30 years ago. Four stars waxing

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tom Rowe

    What a delightful book! This book is a collection of six speeches given by biographers on their work in exploring their subjects and writing. Yeah, this book seems very specific in its subject matter. I enjoyed each of these speeches whether they were from the three writers whose biographies that I read or the three that I did not. I would recommend this if you like reading biographies or if you like reading about writing and research. Oh, and the who thing was edited by William Zinsser who is o What a delightful book! This book is a collection of six speeches given by biographers on their work in exploring their subjects and writing. Yeah, this book seems very specific in its subject matter. I enjoyed each of these speeches whether they were from the three writers whose biographies that I read or the three that I did not. I would recommend this if you like reading biographies or if you like reading about writing and research. Oh, and the who thing was edited by William Zinsser who is one of my favorite writers on writing.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Erin Boyington

    Originally I got this book because one of the lectures was by Robert A. Caro (who I’m semi-obsessed with after finishing ‘The Power Broker’), but all the rest were so great that I went ahead and read them all. I’ve never fully enjoyed biographies, which are often long and tediously detailed, so these essay-sized lectures by biographers are perfect for me. (I even added some of the books mentioned to my TBR list.) All of the talks were given at the NY Public Library in the winter of 1985, and the Originally I got this book because one of the lectures was by Robert A. Caro (who I’m semi-obsessed with after finishing ‘The Power Broker’), but all the rest were so great that I went ahead and read them all. I’ve never fully enjoyed biographies, which are often long and tediously detailed, so these essay-sized lectures by biographers are perfect for me. (I even added some of the books mentioned to my TBR list.) All of the talks were given at the NY Public Library in the winter of 1985, and they remain fascinating insights into the labor of love that is biography.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Halecki

    Insightful book:very interesting I decided to read this book because,as a lover of history, the process of writing biographies always interested me. This book was exactly what I was. Looking for. I found some.chapters more interesting than others. Talking about Truman, the Adams family and BLK was something I paid more attention to than when talking about Emily Dickenson or the James family. But,even in those talks, I learned a lot about the mindset of a biographer. Utterly fascinating reading

  21. 4 out of 5

    Remath

    Nice mix of opinion and approach Enjoyable excursion into the ways in which six biographers mine sources to reveal unknown or purposely hidden episodes in the lives of their subjects. Who would guess that Emily Dickinson and Lyndon Johnson were both obsessively secretive. Nuggets of information about the subject and/or permeate each speech. Truman and Moses come alive, Lippman not so much.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Fran

    This book is perfect for biography lovers. Six biographers, including David McCullough and Robert Caro, gave lectures at the New York Public Library about writing their most recent books, discussing how they got interested in the subject, how they proceeded with the research, what they discovered that surprised them. Highly recommend.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Don

    This is a collection of well-told stories (originally lectures) about writing the biographies of very interesting characters! Engaging, informative and insightful, each essay/lecture creating its own author/subject world. Loved it!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Roxann Brennfoerder

    Excellent insight into the craft of biography Especially like David McCullough's methods and philosophy of writing the biographies of Roosevelt and Truman. All the writers featured provided their own approaches, all excellent!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rowland Hill

    Wonderful compendium A collection of lectures by biographers about the process of selecting a subject and the process of writing. Very easy read but filled with information. Should be required reading if you want to write nonfiction.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rose Ann Jenny

    Several authors of biographies of famous people presented a lecture series in 1976, and talked about their subjects and the different ways they chose to bring them to life in books. An interesting and insightful read.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Boomershine

    This is a collection of speeches of authors of biographies talking about their subjects and craft. Good stuff.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Helena Bouchez

    I love William Zinsser and love biographies so I really enjoyed the insights this book provided.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Greg Bailey

    This small volume, which looked dated and unimpressive on the shelf, turned out to be one of my better used-bookstore finds, a real delight. A collection of six talks by biographers delivered at the New York Public Library in the 1980s and edited by William Zinsser, it not only sheds light on several interesting subjects, but delves into the challenges and rewards of the biographer's trade. The book leads off with David McCullough's chapter on his biography of Harry Truman, and I confess that I This small volume, which looked dated and unimpressive on the shelf, turned out to be one of my better used-bookstore finds, a real delight. A collection of six talks by biographers delivered at the New York Public Library in the 1980s and edited by William Zinsser, it not only sheds light on several interesting subjects, but delves into the challenges and rewards of the biographer's trade. The book leads off with David McCullough's chapter on his biography of Harry Truman, and I confess that I bought the book primarily for this essay. As I expected, McCullough was fun to read. But finishing that chapter, I found myself reading on into Richard Sewall's chapter on Emily Dickinson and liking it beyond all my expectation. And so it went: Paul Nagel on the Adams women, Ronald Steel on Walter Lippmann, Jean Strouse on Henry, William, and Alice James, and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson—all were captivating. The book reads very well, and for this I'll credit Zinsser, the incomparable author of On Writing Well. It's impossible to know how much freedom he had with the transcripts of the lectures, but all of them carry the reader along and prove enlightening and entertaining. If you're in the mood for short treatments of interesting people or insights into the techniques of biographers at the top of their game, Extraordinary Lives is a great option.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Anson Cassel Mills

    Conceived in 1985 by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the New York Public Library as a series of six lectures by noted biographers, Extraordinary Lives was tidied up for publication by William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, a first-rate how-to book for writers. Fortunately, Zinsser also included parts of the question-and-answer sessions that followed the lectures, which as he notes, frequently sent “the speakers off on flights of anecdote and memory.” Although the subjects of the biographies Conceived in 1985 by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the New York Public Library as a series of six lectures by noted biographers, Extraordinary Lives was tidied up for publication by William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, a first-rate how-to book for writers. Fortunately, Zinsser also included parts of the question-and-answer sessions that followed the lectures, which as he notes, frequently sent “the speakers off on flights of anecdote and memory.” Although the subjects of the biographies are themselves extraordinary, the editor and the biographers are exceptional craftsmen as well. (For that matter, the biographers Robert Caro and David McCullough are probably more historically significant than is Alice James, one of the subjects.) This is a book meant for reading rather than for study, which among other things means that it’s fun to read. The book has no index, but it does have an annotated bibliography, compiled by the biographers, that includes comments on both biographies and books about writing them. This fine book should be better known among educated general readers.

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