Nothing tells us more about how to be alive now than learning from those who have gone before. And nothing captures their triumphs and disasters better than a book. We invited 25 writers to recommend a biography they love. Here are their picks of 25 lives well lived, 25 lives well told. Read them. Learn from them. Return to them.More
Recommended by Nick Hornby:
Sarah Bakewell’s book is a biography with a difference. Like every great life in the arts, Montaigne’s is hundreds of years long. He happens to have died in 1592, but his influence is everywhere: in Hamlet’s soliloquies, in every newspaper, on every blog. Montaigne, for better or for worse, invented the personal essay — really — and this singular book explores some of the ideas these essays raised, and traces Montaigne’s survival from generation to generation.
There’s a more conventional biography in here, too, but Bakewell manages to thread it into a philosophical self-help book about grief, conviviality, work, originality and a lot of other subjects that Montaigne wanted us to think about. As a consequence, How To Live is original, accessible, thoughtful, useful, and more fun than you’d ever have thought a 16th-century essayist could be.
I’d like to read a similar book about Elvis, or Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Jane Austen; sometimes the true greatness only emerges years, centuries even, after the last breath has been drawn.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby is out now (Viking)
Recommended by Colm Tóibín:
Becoming a Poet by David Kalstone, is the story of the relationship between three poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore. Using letters and drafts of poems, he shows how Lowell and Moore did everything they could to influence and help and often patronise Elizabeth Bishop. Moore and her eccentric mother even rewrote one of Bishop’s poems for her, just as Lowell made one of Bishop’s stories into a poem, and later, without her permission, one of her letters into a sonnet.
Kalstone, who died in 1986, three years before the book was published, was a scholar with a light touch, a critic with a real interest in what lay behind poetic influence and inspiration. The book manages to tell the story of three sensibilities, and then shows us Bishop’s efforts to float away from her two mentors by writing slowly and meticulously about her childhood in Nova Scotia — some poems took her more than twenty years to complete — and then about Key West, where she lived for a decade, and then later her life in Brazil.
Kalstone’s style is elegant: he manages to make careful and sober judgements. His book is one of the great biographies.
Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín is out now (Viking)