This is how far I’ll go to stay true to The List: This year I read not one, not two, but three tedious, never-ending, 600-page biographies of white guys. Dude, The List made me.
“I have to do it; it’s on The List” is now my mantra. So this year, The List brought me to Lincoln by David Herbert Donald; Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams by Lyle Leverich (both from 1995’s list); and from 1996, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow (an actor and author whom you may remember most from his role as the libertine who [spoiler alert] is the recipient of said funeral in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral).
These doorstops follow a typical format. They begin with the subject’s grand- or even great-grandparents; describe his birth and childhood in great detail, and work (slo-o-o-owly) up to the height of his career…as preparation for the second (or third, or fourth) volume. Yes, it’s true: These 600-pagers are often precursors to multiple OTHER 600-pagers. The Tennessee Williams bio was going to be a stand-alone until the author started working and realized he had enough material for two volumes (did he, though?). Almost mercifully, he passed away before he was able to finish it. The Orson Welles work was intended to be the start of a two-volume set; the author is currently working on its FOURTH volume.
In the early years of Entertainment Weekly’s best-of lists, which began in 1990, those 600-pagers were frequent; at least one a year, and sometimes two (!) all through the ‘90s. In the ‘90s, these giant biographies, by white guys, about white guys, were all the rage.
I’m not a fan.
But as it is, I find that these 600-pagers bring me down. I found one about Elvis Presley fascinating when I read it in 2016, but mostly, these books are draining. They take literally months to read (even when I resort to skimming them here and there), and they drastically slow down my progress through The List. (Because of having read three of them this year, I’m now in the position of having eight books to finish between now and December 31 if I’m going to meet my reading goal for the year…which is obviously not going to happen. I HATE unmet goals.)
I’m afraid I just can’t sympathize with the level of detail these authors feel compelled to share. What’s the most interesting thing about Orson Welles? “Citizen Kane,” right? Or maybe his work with the Federal Theatre Project during the Depression? When you read about Tennessee Williams, you’re gonna skip ahead to
“The Glass Menagerie.” It’s hard to imagine anyone being transfixed by details like like the history of Grand Detour, Wisconsin, where Orson Welles vacationed with his family when he was four years old.
Even more interesting than the events that actually made these people famous would probably be what happened afterward: Why did Welles, a boy genius revered for making what is widely considered the best film ever produced, spiral into a body of wildly uneven work and increasingly extravagant behaviors and appetites? What happened when Tennessee Williams finally hit it big with the semi-autobiographical
“Menagerie,” and how did he stumble into creating “A Streetcar Named Desire”? How did he react to being thrust into the literary stratosphere…? That’s what I’m curious about…but damn if I’m going to read ANOTHER 600-page biography to find out.
I’d argue that reducing the large chunks of irrelevant, repetitive content about a subject’s boyhood could make a compelling single-volume work, one that still covers the salient points of his adult life and is more appealing to a broader range of readers (and, not coincidentally, sells more books).
But that’s not what the authors are going for. I understand that I’m probably not the intended audience for these books; they’re meant for true scholars, and I get that. What I don’t understand is why so many of these books made the best-of lists every year in a magazine devoted to popular entertainment. The Tennessee Williams book was unbelievably slow, and draining to read. #sorrynotsorry, but I really can’t believe that that was
one of the ten BEST books of 1995 (a year that saw the publication of “Notes from a Small Island” by Bill Bryson; “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire; and “The Tortilla Curtain” by T.C. Boyle).
And what about the OTHER biographies? Where’s the 600-pager on Harriet Tubman? Queen Lili’uokalani? Sacajawea…? We’re missing vast swaths of information about these people (for obvious reasons), so it might be hard to produce 600 pages at the same level of detail as the white guys…but is anyone trying? And if produced, would those books make The List?
Mercifully, in the ‘00s, The List starts to trend towards different kinds of nonfiction: A lot of memoirs; and a fair number of the kind of “object biographies” that started becoming popular 10 or 15 years ago, where an author takes one seemingly innocuous topic (salt, for instance), and writes a lengthy piece on its place on the world stage. Are we moving away from a society fascinated by “great lives” toward something more egalitarian? Are we more interested in everyday people’s stories than we used to be? For God’s sake, WHO WILL THINK OF THE 600-PAGE BIOGRAPHIES OF WHITE GUYS?!
I’m not sorry to see them becoming less popular as I scan my reading assignments for the years ahead. There isn’t an end to them, but at least they become less common. Already completed for me are two 600-pagers of Lyndon Johnson (two of a four-volume set) and one of Elvis Presley; still to come are Julia Child, Colette, Frederick Law Olmsted (which mercifully clocks in at only 480 pages), Teddy Roosevelt, and Edna St. Vincent Millay…at least one a year through the year 2000. Sigh. Some of them at least have the saving grace of being about white GALS, but still.
600-page biographies of white guys are still being produced, of course. Author Ron Chernow is a virtual cottage industry for them: He’s already written tomes on George Washington, John D. Rockefeller, and Alexander Hamilton (the basis of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s white-hot musical). I’ll be curious to see if his bio of Ulysses Grant, published just two months ago, makes it onto EW’s list this year. (As noted, the magazine has made a move toward more egalitarian choices in recent years, so maybe not. They’ve also recently cut down from naming 20 books a year to only 10, further reducing its chances.) [editor’s note: I’m a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, so I picked up Chernow’s biography. More than a year later, I’m still slugging through it. Good book, but a 30 page bio-within-a-bio about James Reynolds is, indeed, excessive.]
For now, with several of these babies under my belt and half a dozen (at least) to go, I find my pleasure in feeling virtuous. I don’t enjoy reading them…but I enjoy having read them.
Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org