Writing Lives Is the Devil!

Gale Christianson strikes a good balance between essays on himself as a biographer and on his subjects, Isaac Newton, Loren Eisley, and modern astronomers. He does well with the traditional biographer’s set pieces—why he chose his subjects and how he went about doing his research. Occasionally he is a little glib and does not do full justice to the process of biographical research. For example, he refers to “dull and unrewarding work” in archives. While it is true that many hours can be spent in a library focusing on minutiae that seems to yield little, this aspect of research has also been a fascinating activity for biographers obsessed with their subjects and excited by the prospect of making discoveries in seemingly trivial data. Christianson knows this, but his language does not always convey it when he takes refuge in bromides.

The book’s strength is its organization. Christianson gives a good sense of process, of how biographers begin, work through, and end their projects. He is also very good on how the biographer takes possession of his subject and deals with wary witnesses to a life—such as Loren Eisley’s wife. He even includes a chapter on how biographies are received and the way the biographer reacts to his fan mail.

WRITING LIVES IS THE DEVIL! might have been improved by bringing in the experience of other biographers, for sometimes Christianson generalizes on the basis of his experience alone. He does include, however, a reasonably up-to-date bibliography of writing about the subject of biography which will send readers to other versions of how writing lives is accomplished.