I’ve decided that I’d like to devote my reading time this summer to biography and history. In the last few years, I’ve read a lot of history, particularly “people’s history” or “revisionist” history—you know, those things that are typically left out of traditional education curricula in the United States.
I haven’t devoted specific time to it, though, except in mini-projects, such as Black History Month, etc. And I’ve read so few biographies in general that I began to think I had to change that, especially since there are so many people who interest me. I’ll be reading some literature this summer, too (novels, poetry), but for the most part, I’ve got biography and history on the agenda, and that’s certainly how the month of June turned out. Here’s where I’ve been:
Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (5 out of 5)
This is the first biography by Isaacson that I’ve read. It has certainly encouraged me to read pretty much any others that he’s written. Fortunately, he’s written a bunch on people I’m actually interested in learning more about! He’s got a kind of collection known as “the genius collection” or something like that, which includes Leonardo Da Vinci (read this month, too), Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs. He’s also got another one called The Innovators that looks fascinating, and The Code Breaker, about Jennifer Doudna, also looks great. I found Isaacson a bit repetitive in this one, but it wasn’t so much as to be distracting or annoying. What struck me most about Einstein, through this biography, is how very similar he and I are in personality and politics (leaving aside the genius part, obviously). I knew a little about Einstein’s major achievements, of course, but there is so much more to know, and Isaacson tells the story of his life very well. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went out and purchased Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (4 out of 5)
We toss around this word, genius, until its definition is meaningless. I thought I knew Leonardo da Vinci. Don’t we all? We hear about him as children (in my case via The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, first, but never mind) and then throughout our lives. Most of us recognize that he was a true genius, in the sense that is actually meaningful. We’re awed by his art and inspired by his inventions. But it turns out, we knew nothing. I knew nothing. I had not a g-damn clue. I’m not sure I’ve ever finished a book, biography or otherwise, feeling so humbled. And a little bit enraged. What if Leonardo had published his papers? Who and where would we be now? A hundred years more advanced than we are? Two hundred? Goodness gracious! Isaacson’s tendency to be repetitive did get a bit distracting in this one, possibly because he does not arrange this biography in a straight chronology the way he did Einstein’s. Still, it was an edifying and exciting adventure and very much has me wanting to return to The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s biographical novel about Michelangelo.
A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski (4 out of 5)
I first read this one back in 2015 or so, while preparing/writing my doctoral dissertation. I’m certain I referenced it once or twice, too. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first text in the “revisionist history” series, and it’s a decent inaugural text for that project. I was and still am disappointed that Bronski ends the history at about 1990, despite the book having been published two decades after that. He explains his reasons for this, but it didn’t change my reaction. So much happened for Queer/LGBTQ+ people between 1990 and 2012, and I think it needed to be represented, too. Otherwise, though, the book is exactly what it says it will be, an illuminating and detailed history of queer people in the United States, from its founding to the AIDS crisis. Those new to LGBTQ+ history will learn a lot from reading this text, some of which will be surprising. We have always been here.
The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty (3 out of 5)
What a gift to witness Joan Didion grow, and grow up. She was always a great writer. She became a great person. I admire no one more than the person who can face the truth and then change because they’ve faced it. I wasn’t a big fan of the style, here, though I do understand the author had to write this without Didion’s cooperation. If you’ve read all of Didion’s work and seen her interviews, there’s not a whole lot to be gained. That said, the detail (which is fairly criticized as being overwhelming) and chronology, and the inclusion of stories happening/lives being lived in close proximity to Didion’s, while at first irritating (as overkill/unnecessary), eventually made a lot of sense. If you’re writing about a writer who is always looking for the threads, why not include the threads? I think we get closer to a truth that way. I’m not sure I can forgive the biographer for disillusioning me about Didion’s personality–oh, we’d have never been very good friends–but it’s safe to say she remains my favorite writer.
DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi (5 out of 5)
I have honestly never read anything like this. I’m not equipped to remark on it. I think I can say, though, that it is perfect for what it is. It’s inventive, powerful, and jarring. There’s visual poetry and traditional poetry, all of which tells and investigates a painful and disturbing period in American history. It challenges us to see and feel what happened, and to recognize that “we” were responsible for it. This is an incredible piece of work.
So, that’s one history, three biographies, and one poetry collection (which is heavily steeped in history and biography). I’m also currently reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen. I might end up finishing one or both of these before June is out, but probably not in time to write anything about them, so if I decide to share some thoughts, they’ll likely come sometime in July.