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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, January 23, 2000


Biographies Immerse Us In Another's Life

It's not often that reading a book can change your life, but five years ago that's what happened to me. The book was a biography of the great conductor Leonard Bernstein by his video producer, Humphrey Burton.

Bernstein's charisma and enthusiasm reached out to me through the covers of the book, and my latent interest in classical music was reawakened. A good biography can do this to you. It can be an inspiration and a motivator. After reading about the accomplishments of others, you, too, want to achieve more.

Since many biographies are quite long, the reader ends up spending a great deal of time with that person. After a while, you may start to identify with him or her. It's almost like an actor assuming a role. You take on another life, and in doing so your life is enriched. I invite you to take one of these lives home with you from your local public library.

Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. by Lynne Tillman.

If you love books like I do, this is a book for you. Books & Co. was an independent bookstore in New York City that flourished in the 1980's. It may have been the last of its kind. It was a literary bookstore that featured weekly readings by nationally prominent authors. A few copies of bestsellers were reluctantly displayed, but the strengths of the store were its philosophy section and its "wall of books," which consisted of all the indispensable titles by all the best authors. Ms. Watson and her employees were voracious readers and could recommend just the book you were looking for. Alas, the competition from the big chains drove even their faithful customers away, and the store closed its doors in 1997.

Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson (Wiley, 1999).

It was the popular science writings of Sagan that inspired the author to pursue a scientific career. Sagan had that kind of effect on people. He made science cool. Young people saw the tall, dark, articulate young professor with the fashionably long hair enthusiastically explaining the universe on the PBS series Cosmos and decided that science wasn't so nerdy after all.

Ever since he was sixteen Carl Sagan had the dream of discovering life on other planets, and he stayed true to his quest, though his hopes for its discovery were never realized. There's a lot of science in these pages, but you'll never get bored following the career of the man with the two-inch-thick resume. Sagan was a renaissance man, grounded in the humanities at the University of Chicago but relentlessly rationalistic, more of a theorizer than experimenter, who made important contributions to the theories of the greenhouse effect and nuclear winter.

Walker Evans by James R. Mellow (Basic, 1999).

Walker Evans is considered to be the finest documentary photographer of the twentieth century. He is best known for his collaboration with James Agee on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an intimate look into an Alabama sharecropper's family during the Depression. These and other photographs from the thirties have shaped how we picture the Great Depression.

James Mellow is one of my favorite biographers of writers. Evans's initial ambition was to be a writer and his photographs are symbolic like poems. Mellow died before he finished this book, but he takes us through the period of Evans's best work. The years between the great wars are always an interesting time to read about, when the capital of the art world was shifting from Paris to New York, where Evans lived and worked. You may also want to check out Mellow's biographies of Evans's contemporaries, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.

When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

This is one of the best sports biographies that I have ever read. Maraniss shows how the legendary coach has become a part of our sports mythology. He uses quotations from great sports writers like Grantland Rice and Red Smith to vividly recreate the heroic gridiron exploits of the past.

Lombardi was a simple but conflicted man. He lived by the creed of God, family, and the Green Bay Packers, but sadly his family actually came in last. His real family was his players. Bart Starr was his good son, and Paul Hornung the prodigal one. Never hesitant to chew out his players, he knew his anger was a sin but was afraid to give it up, because he thought he couldn't win without it. His will to win literally ate him up. But I can still say that after finishing this book, I am still a fan of Vince Lombardi, the Pope of Green Bay.

I would also like to announce that I am starting up a mystery book discussion group at Central Library. We will meet the third Sunday of each month. Please contact me if you are interested.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.