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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, August 24, 2003

Biographies Attract Reader for Personal Reasons

The process of choosing a book is often mysterious. What is it that causes one to pick up one book and not another? First the cover must attract one's attention, but then personal memories and associations go to work.

I would like to share the reasons I recommend the following four new biographical arrivals.

The Road to Home: My Life and Times by Vartan Gregorian (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Some years ago, I attended an American Library Association event at the New York Public Library and was impressed with the restoration of the main library made by its then-director, Vartan Gregorian.

Here was a man who could really raise money. From his new autobiography, it is clear that he had a way with New York society matrons.

His story is an inspirational one that begins in Armenian Iran, then moves to his college years in Beirut, followed by teaching at San Francisco State University during the student riots of the 1960s, where he often represented the administration in negotiations with student radicals.

After his successful tenure at the New York Public Library, he became President of Brown University. His success is a result of a sincere love of books and learning, as well as charismatic personal gifts.

First Loves: A Memoir by Ted Solotaroff (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

I had never heard of this author, but I picked up his book because it is a writer's memoir, which I find irresistible. On the cover is a photograph of his first wife and their two children.

This second volume of the prominent editor's autobiography is a love story that ends badly. Solotaroff's young wife turns out to be mentally unstable as well as competitive. The author himself, though he spends most of this volume pursuing academic laurels at the University of Chicago, is a plainspoken, sensitive and regular guy, qualities that contributed to his future achievements as a big-time book editor.

I look forward to reading the next installment in his story.

Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life by N. John Hall (Yale University, 2002).

Though I had always intended to read Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, it was not until reading the books by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone on book collecting that I took particular notice of the incomparable Beerbohm.

It turns out that there are Maximilians (members of Beerbohm's fan club) worldwide, a fact corroborated on June 3, 1997, when 100 people gathered for the appearance of the fictional Enoch Soames, the subject of one of Beerbohm's essays set in 1897.

In this work, Soames sold his soul to the devil so he could return to the British Museum reading room in 100 years to check on his posthumous poetic fame or lack thereof. A man fitting the failed poet's description was spotted, though he is rumored to have been an actor.

Beerbohm was one of the last cultured Englishmen of the old school. A caricaturist as well as writer, he was a dandy, a radio personality and a friend to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

His writing combines the elegance of Thackeray with the wit of Wilde. He spent the last 40 years of his life on the Italian Riviera, not a bad idea at all. Hall is a sympathetic and entertaining chronicler of Beerbohm's life.

Shelby Foote: A Writer's Life by C. Stuart Chapman (University Press of Mississippi, 2003).

Shelby Foote is another one who is the last of a breed, in his case the Southern gentleman. I picked up his story because of his appearance on C-Span's BookTV, a great way to find out about new books.

It has been said that there is no finer conversationalist than Foote, and it is amazing to know that his commentary for Ken Burns' Civil War series on the Public Broadcasting Service was mostly off-the-cuff.

We learn here that Foote is much more than a popular historian; he is a novelist first and foremost. It is his novelist's dramatic gifts that make his Civil War history so readable.

Chapman serves this Southern gentleman well in a smooth and interesting narrative.

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.