Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A New Trend in Biography - Library Gazing?. . .

How much can one tell about a person based on the books he or she reads? For the most part I organize my own home library through a set of self-devised categories, so a complete stranger at a glance could surmise at least a couple of my literary obsessions. If they were really knowledgeable about publishing, they might also wonder why I had a preponderance of books published by the imprints that I sell (hint - we get a lot of freebies at work). If they were a neat freak or a minimalist they'd probably just run screaming from the piles of books on the floor and the doublestacking on the shelves. But since I don't tend to mark up my books with notes in the margins or underline passages, it would probably be very difficult to gain any deep insights into my very ordinary life, just from the titles on my bookshelves (I think).

Oscar Wilde and Adolf Hitler obviously have left a little more of themselves in their books as two new biographies try to demonstrate. Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright is a look at Wilde's life through the books he read and the libraries he created, showing not only how his own writing was influenced by his reading, but how he used books to cultivate his public persona, to seduce young men, and also to sustain him in prison. (It was while he was in Holloway that the entire contents of his beloved library - some 2,000 books - were sadly auctioned for a song to cover his legal bills). I've been dipping in and out of this intriguing biography and it keeps drawing me back. What Wilde and I share (and this is increasingly the case as I grow older), is a love of books also as aesthetic objects. Wright calls Wilde a "book dandy" to distinguish him from a regular bibliophile, because of this passion. And he notes that Wilde often judged a book by its cover, and once quipped: "The public is largely influenced by the look of a book. So are we all. It is the only artistic thing about the public. "

Hitler apparently marked up his books quite substantially. Timothy W. Ryback went through hundreds of his these - now housed in the Library of Congress - in writing his biography, Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life. I suppose it's a little unnerving to think of Hitler as a bibliophile - it's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the improving, empathizing benefits of reading - but perhaps this paradox is the key question of this biography. The Washington Post's excellent critic Michael Dirda reviews the book here and while he has some reservations, he still finds it fascinating.

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