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Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Why we must read old books - especially biographies

Biographies: the bad and the ugly
If I had a dollar for every disappointing biography I have read, I'd be a millionaire! Here are the causes of the bad and the ugly....

(1) Some are just too long
If Matthew's biography of the perfect immortal Son of God contains just 18,000 words, perhaps that ought to set the bar for all other biographies? The point is, all we really need to know about a frail mortal can surely be compressed into a relatively small space. I have had to speed-read through a vast number of biography pages.

(2) Some are too "BBC"
A BBC biography is one written according to the moral norms of  today, today being the operative word. As a once-avid reader of Time Magazine and National Geographic I am astounded how much they, along with the BBC, have become children, not of age, decade, year or month or week, but of the moment. The character is judged by the fleeting morality of the moment and therefore the book is dated before it hits the deck at Amazon's warehouse.

(3) Some are just plain biased
Worst of all are the biographies which are just plain biased - either wittingly or unwittingly. I once read a biography of Van Gough that was more the psychobabble analysis of a human mind than a story of a life.

Christian biographies can be biased because they were written by people too close to the subject or because not enough time has passed for a proper assessment to be made. 

Perhaps the poorest biographies in this catergory are those written by unbelievers about believers! No-one can understand how a Christian ticks except a Christian. A recent example of this was a biography I read of the great James Clerk Maxwell written by an unbeliever who simply could not fathom what made the great man tick.  I have had to order another much older  biography, written by someone who understood the scientist's walk with God.

The marks of a good biography?
(1) Short!
No-one achieves that much in life, no-one is all that important. Short is not only good, short is best.

(2) Interesting!
Why write about them if there was nothing distinctive about their lives?

(3) Timeless!
Biographers must try to stand above the times in which they live and not judge their subject by the petty fleeting standards of the day. If they manage to rise above the times, there's  a good chance their work will be read in 100 years time - perhaps that's an aim every biographer should have in mind.

(4) Lessons!
What can we learn from that life  for ourselves today?

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