The Biography Conundrum

If you’re reading this blog post, then, like me, you probably have a long ‘to-read’ list to which you’re endlessly adding. While it’s nice to know that I’ll never run out of things I want to read, this never-ending list is also the source of a little anxiety for me. I am someone who likes to make lists, cross things off the lists and move on to fresh lists. My ‘to-read’ list is the one list that I know I will never conquer in my lifetime, no matter how many titles I read. As a result, I’m careful about which books I add to that list.

That brings me to the topic of biographies and the challenge of choosing which version of a person’s life story I’m going to read.

The biographies I read (on average one or two a year) are invariably about an author or musician whose work I admire. Last year, I read a biography about Shel Silverstein called A Boy Named Shel. Shel Silverstein is best known for his illustrations and writings for children, such as the The Giving Tree and A Light in the Attic.

In the case of Shel Silverstein, A Boy Named Shel was the only biography written for an adult audience that was available to me. I didn’t have to wade through countless reviews of different people’s interpretations of one person’s life story. (The convolution is intentional.)

But how do I settle on just one biography when there are a number of options? I’m facing that question now, as I consider which Nina Simone biography I’m going to tackle. Currently, I am trying to decide between: Nina Simone: The Biography by David Brun-Lambert and Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas.

Both biographies earned decent critical reviews. So, I dug a little deeper for some reader opinions, which revealed more positive reviews for Brun-Lambert’s version of Nina Simone’s life. Due to those reviews, I suppose I am leaning in the direction of Brun-Lambert’s book. However, this isn’t a complete solution to the puzzle since the people who reviewed Brun-Lambert’s book didn’t review Cohodas’ book (or at least I don’t know if they did). In short: the reviewers are reviewing each title in a vacuum, not against each other.

More importantly, I’m left wondering which book offers the truest portrait of Nina Simone, which I’m not sure anyone can honestly judge, barring personal acquaintances. I realize that no biography, not even an autobiography, can give a completely reliable picture of anyone’s life. This notion of a ‘reliable picture’ doesn’t even really exist, as the nature of a life is too fluid to be held up to a standard of reliability.

The truth of the matter is, I know that no biography can offer what I really want: to feel like I’ve met the subject, for however briefly, by the time I close the book. To date, no biography has ever left me with this feeling, although at one time, I used to begin each new biography with that hope.

Instead of my dinner with Nina, I’ll have to settle for enjoying her music while I read her life story as told by a researcher who may never have met her either. That’s often the nature of biographies. In the end, no matter which biography I choose, I will have at least learned some things I didn’t know about the great Ms. Simone.



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