Non Fiction November! – Week 2

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Week 2: November 10 to 14 is hosted by Leslie at Regular Rumination

For week two of Non Fiction November, we are tasked with the following: “Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I’m afraid I’m going to cheat this week and kind of do two of the three options. I’m a Non Fiction November Rebel! 🙂

Marching under the “Be the Expert” banner, I’d like to recommend a great popular history writer and three of his books. Have you ever heard of Daniel Boorstin? His isn’t a household name, but he served many years as Librarian of Congress, and also wrote several books on history, including maybe my favorite non-fiction book ever, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination.

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One of the beauties of this book is that it’s really a huge collection of 8-15 page segments on great men and women in the history of the arts and thus can be out down and revisited without “having to start over” again or anything like that. I read it the first time over the course of several month’s worth of lunch hour reading at downtown Indy’s City Market building. This would’ve been in the late ’90s probably, and I can still vividly remember how somedays it was hard to re-enter the “corporate world” after just a brief sojourn with the heroes of the imagination. I learned SO MUCH reading this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

He also wrote the similarly structured books “The Discoverers” and “The Americans” – the latter which I had read as assigned reading in college, the former I read after being won over by The Creators. Another favorite by this author is the oddly titled “Cleopatra’s Nose,” a collection of “essays on the unexpected.” All great, great reading.

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Now for Part II – if you’ve made it this far 🙂 – I’d like to avail myself of the Ask the Expert option too.

I’m one who loves to know “the story behind the story” in regards to some of the great works of literature. This has led me to become a fan of author biographies (or even author autobiographies). I’ve read a handful of both – autobiographies of Asimov, Wells, Trollope, Franklin, e.g., and biographies of Kerouac, Hawthorne, Poe, Dickens et. al. I have a thick biography of Jack London on my bedside table that for some reason I still haven’t read. But I want MORE. 🙂 What are some great author biographies or autobiographies that you have read and would recommend? I’m happy to be guided…

Well that’s me, but what about you? Are you Being, Becoming, or Asking this week?

Below: Daniel Boorstin in 1992 (from Wikipedia)

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A Spark of Genius, Quenched in Misery

Early in his biography, “Poe: A Life Cut Short,” Peter Ackroyd relates that, a few weeks before his death, Poe had admitted “I do believe that God gave me a spark of genius, but He quenched it in misery.” After reading this short biography (only 140 pages), I would have to agree.

Ackroyd has also written a well-received biography of Charles Dickens, and it was actually that book I was looking for when I stumbled upon this Poe biography. I went ahead and read it first, as I’ll admit I like to follow “the hand of fate” whenever it presents itself to influence what i’ll read next. I’m so glad I did, as I learned a lot about this famous author (1809-1849). I was surprised and saddened to discover what a struggle his life had been, not knowing he had spent most of it destitute (and I mean REALLY destitute) and had actually earned most of the little money he did earn through his work as an editor rather than a writer. The estimated total amount he had actually earned from his books – in his entire life – was less than I earn in average day. Admittedly, this does not allow for the change in the relative value of the 19th century dollar to that of the 21st century one, but we could change it from a day to two or three months and it remains a pitiable fact.

I had known, for example, that Poe had been at West Point but was dismissed (he had come to realize he didn’t want to “waste the prime of (his) life in service” and had thus tried to resign but wasn’t allowed. Ackroyd humorously relates that later Poe’s “plan to leave the Academy, through dereliction of duty, succeeded admirably.” (& reading – even just briefly – about Poe’s time at West Point also served to rekindle an interest of mine in a temporarily abandoned read, “The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomatox” which I have once again picked up and am making good progress again now. Thank you, Mr. Poe and Mr. Ackroyd.)

Another common thread in the biography was that Poe’s life was strewn with women he lost to (often premature) death. His own mother, his de facto adopted mother, and his young wife later in his life. Echoes of these losses reverberate through his work, and in all likelihood greatly influenced the morbidity and horror that suffuses his most famous tales and poems.

I was reminded also of Poe’s great influence over subsequent literature. His stories, The Purloined Letter, and Murders in the Rue Morgue are universally acknowledged as the birth of the detective story in literature. His stories of fantasy are thought to also have influenced those patriarchs of science fiction, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. And his poetry remains influential to this day. Quite a legacy for one man, wouldn’t you agree? Particularly one who died when he was only forty years old!

Like so many great artists, though, Poe wrestled with the demon of alcohol abuse. It was repeated by many that knew him that he didn’t necessarily drink often, but when he did, he couldn’t stop. His inability to control his demons led him to his premature death in somewhat mysterious (how fitting) circumstances. Baudelaire wrote once that Poe’s death was “almost a suicide – a suicide prepared for a long time.”

My old book club once devoted a meeting to several of his short stories and poems, and it remains one of my favorite meetings that we ever had. What are your thoughts about Poe? Are you also a fan, or is he too macabre for your tastes?

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(Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849; in this biography, the author commented several times on Poe’s phsyiognomy, and on how one side of his face was quite different from the other.  I had never really thought about that until now, but I can see what he’s talking about in most photographs or portraits)

Help Wanted – Project: Author Biographies

I’ve decided on my “main” reading project for 2012. I intend to read 12 biographies of favorite/famous writers during the year. I think I should be able to keep up with a one per month pace, shouldn’t I?

Here’s where I could use some help, though: I have a couple “in the pipeline” – one of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and another of Kerouac (Memory Babe). I also saw on line one about the Bronte sisters that looked good. (the book looked good, not the sisters – I don’t know what they looked like 🙂 ). But I don’t know yet which books will fill the other slots.

So if any of my loyal (or even new) readers want to make a few suggestions, I’m wiling to be guided on at least a few of the twelve…

Anyone?