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How to Do Biography: A Primer

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Biographer and teacher Nigel Hamilton tackles the art of writing a biography in this succinct primer that elucidate the tools of the biographer's craft. Starting with personal motivation, he charts the making of a modern biography from the inside - from conception to fulfillment. Biographer and teacher Nigel Hamilton tackles the art of writing a biography in this succinct primer that elucidate the tools of the biographer's craft. Starting with personal motivation, he charts the making of a modern biography from the inside - from conception to fulfillment.


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Biographer and teacher Nigel Hamilton tackles the art of writing a biography in this succinct primer that elucidate the tools of the biographer's craft. Starting with personal motivation, he charts the making of a modern biography from the inside - from conception to fulfillment. Biographer and teacher Nigel Hamilton tackles the art of writing a biography in this succinct primer that elucidate the tools of the biographer's craft. Starting with personal motivation, he charts the making of a modern biography from the inside - from conception to fulfillment.

30 review for How to Do Biography: A Primer

  1. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

    This was highly readable and enjoyable "how-to" book. I'm working on a biography, and I could not have asked for a better primer. Hamilton mixes in a good bit of history about the genre along with terrific examples from various biographies to illustrate his major points. He gives a chapter to each of the essential features that need to be covered when writing a life story, and I particularly enjoyed that fact that he emphasizes the importance of love stories. The chapter that gave me the most pa This was highly readable and enjoyable "how-to" book. I'm working on a biography, and I could not have asked for a better primer. Hamilton mixes in a good bit of history about the genre along with terrific examples from various biographies to illustrate his major points. He gives a chapter to each of the essential features that need to be covered when writing a life story, and I particularly enjoyed that fact that he emphasizes the importance of love stories. The chapter that gave me the most pause for thought was "Truth or Consequences" in which he discusses the necessity for truth but also the issues that arise when one attempts or desires to tell the truth--the truth, of course, as the biographer sees it. This was a gold mine from which I took copious notes, including making a list of biographies that I want to read.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    The sequel to Biography: A Brief History seeks to condense practical advice and guidance from the author and many of his colleagues. Succeeding in that the student/reader is provided with a well structured overview of insights, structural considerations, pit-falls etc. Probably saves the beginner a lot a otherwise wasted time.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jerry

    While I obsess on memoirs, I have occasionally wondered what biographers think about turning a lifetime into a story. I need wonder no more. This book is a wonderfully written explanation of the process and history of writing a biography. It's full of examples, insights, ideas. It's a feast for anyone who wants to learn what biographies are all about. While I obsess on memoirs, I have occasionally wondered what biographers think about turning a lifetime into a story. I need wonder no more. This book is a wonderfully written explanation of the process and history of writing a biography. It's full of examples, insights, ideas. It's a feast for anyone who wants to learn what biographies are all about.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Tamara

    Learning to write biographies before NaNoWriMo

  5. 5 out of 5

    Anson Cassel Mills

    First, let me make it clear that I have no personal grudge against Nigel Hamilton. He writes well, and I believe prospective biographers would do well to read his book. My quarrel is with Hamilton’s indifference to the importance of truth, which unconcern he flaunts in his opening chapter by declaring that the biographical “shots heard round the world” were Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) and Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci (1910). Likewise, in a later chapter, while defending the salaciousness w First, let me make it clear that I have no personal grudge against Nigel Hamilton. He writes well, and I believe prospective biographers would do well to read his book. My quarrel is with Hamilton’s indifference to the importance of truth, which unconcern he flaunts in his opening chapter by declaring that the biographical “shots heard round the world” were Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) and Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci (1910). Likewise, in a later chapter, while defending the salaciousness with which he approached the life of Bill Clinton—a “sleazy new low” repeating “the most scurrilous and unsubstantiated rumors,” wrote one critic—Hamilton defends his prurience by citing the comments of Suetonius on the sexual perversion of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The problem with all three of these examples is that they are at worst, false and at best, not susceptible to proof. Freud’s “outing” of Leonardo as a homosexual is based on a phantasmagoria. Even Charles Nicholl, a Leonardo biographer (2004) who believes Freud’s speculations are “worth listening to,” notes that critics have denounced Freud’s work as “highly speculative psychology on top of highly speculative history, and they are right.” (33-34) Peter Gay’s careful biography of Freud, which Hamilton himself quotes at some length, reveals that Freud himself called his long paper on Leonardo a “halbe Romandichtung,” a half-fictional production. Suetonius’s eyebrow-lifting stories of Tiberius molestation of slave boys may well be true; but they are again just as likely false. Suetonius had an ax to grind with Tiberius and perhaps with all emperors. At least the Oxford History of the Classical World (1986) declares that Suetonius’s “scandalous descriptions” of the emperor’s intimate life make for “an effective, though not necessarily accurate, character portrait.” The Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996), even less enamored, says that the “stories of vice…may be discounted.” (1523-24) As for Gosse’s beautifully written Father and Son (1907), its portrayal of Philip Henry Gosse as a tyrannical, joyless, religiously maniacal father is literarily and psychologically true but factually bogus, as Ann Thwaite—the biographer of both Gosses—has adequately demonstrated in her fine (and unfortunately almost unknown) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse (2002). Gosse pere, though deeply religious, turns out to have been a warm and generous person, deeply in love with life and his family, a man who was slugged into opprobrium by his son's memoir. Hamilton argues that the biographer should “follow, document, and verify the results of genuine, open-minded curiosity.” (91-92) But often missing from his examples is his own skeptical questioning. Hamilton draws appropriate negative lessons from the Reagan biography of Edmund Morris and the “memoir” of James Frey, but he is loathe to give up the gossip that gives “color to people’s lives.” (193) I leave him to it, to his conscience and to his prospective royalties. Although Hamilton claims to know of “no book or primer to guide the would-be biographer,” (1) there have been others, the names of some of which are given in his bibliography. (A true “primer,” Milton Lomask, The Biographer’s Craft [1986] is an obvious omission, but a work mediocre enough that its absence is certainly pardonable.) My own favorite book about biography (also missing from Hamilton’s bibliography) is William Zinsser, ed., Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography (1986), a series of six lectures given at the New York Public Library and tidied up for publication. Read both Hamilton and Zinsser, and see if you don’t find the latter both more fun to read and more practical in its direction.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Bryn (Plus Others)

    There were some useful things in this book, but I found the homophobic comments on Oscar Wilde both unnecessary and detrimental to the work; if Hamilton wants to opine about Wilde's behaviour or sexuality, he can go write his own biography of the man which I will then avoid reading. As for the rest -- I did find it moderately helpful, but Hamilton makes a lot of assumptions about the type of biography that his reader wants to be writing (living or recently-dead public figures) and so he spends a There were some useful things in this book, but I found the homophobic comments on Oscar Wilde both unnecessary and detrimental to the work; if Hamilton wants to opine about Wilde's behaviour or sexuality, he can go write his own biography of the man which I will then avoid reading. As for the rest -- I did find it moderately helpful, but Hamilton makes a lot of assumptions about the type of biography that his reader wants to be writing (living or recently-dead public figures) and so he spends a lot of time talking about how surviving family members can help or hinder the work, and how important it is to interview everyone you can just in case they have something that sheds light on your subject. This is fine, and makes sense, but I wish he'd spent more time talking about historical biography, or the amorphous sorts that focus on groups of people, or places, or the rise and fall of artistic/literary movements. It is a primer, though, and I understand that he was focusing on the sort of work that he does, since that's what he knows best. He is often infuriatingly vague about the details of the work -- just how does one contact an archive and ask for permission to research there? Who at the publisher does one write to propose a biography and what kind of past experience is useful in proving one's ability, if one is just starting out? That's the sort of information I expected this book to have, and while Hamilton touches on these things, he does so lightly, as though it's all common knowledge and anyone can figure it out. Which perhaps they can, but I expected the book to be more specific rather than assuming knowledge and privilege. I did really appreciate the variety of published work he draws on for his examples; I think the best part of the book was his overview of various ways that different biographers have approached their work, and how much tone and register matter. Not terrible, but I see no need to buy a copy of my own.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Molebatsi

    This book is so comprehensive on elements of biography, it qualifies to be a definitive text for subject. It is a handy tool-kit for both readers and writers of biography and memoir. I came out of it much the wiser in the craft of writing biography. Biography is more than the chronology of a life, a mistake writers and readers make. The book adequately fixes these and other shortcomings. I recommend it highly to students of biography and memoir. It has filled me with confidence in my approach to b This book is so comprehensive on elements of biography, it qualifies to be a definitive text for subject. It is a handy tool-kit for both readers and writers of biography and memoir. I came out of it much the wiser in the craft of writing biography. Biography is more than the chronology of a life, a mistake writers and readers make. The book adequately fixes these and other shortcomings. I recommend it highly to students of biography and memoir. It has filled me with confidence in my approach to biography. It's worthy a place on discening bookshelves.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    A great read for anyone looking into writing biographies. I was reading it for a class but learned a lot in the efforts it takes to write biographies. All the ins and outs well described. I also liked the examples given throughout the book. I'm very interested in all references the author used. If I ever get enough time, I would like to read all of them for the sake of better understanding and to say I have red them. As well as to give my opinion and understanding of each. A great read for anyone looking into writing biographies. I was reading it for a class but learned a lot in the efforts it takes to write biographies. All the ins and outs well described. I also liked the examples given throughout the book. I'm very interested in all references the author used. If I ever get enough time, I would like to read all of them for the sake of better understanding and to say I have red them. As well as to give my opinion and understanding of each.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    I've now read several books in the "how to do biography" genre. Hands down, Hamilton's book was the most accessible and useful. As an amateur, I found this book perfect for my needs. Hard to say if someone more experienced would find it as helpful. Then again, someone that has successfully written a biography probably won't be buying a primer. I've now read several books in the "how to do biography" genre. Hands down, Hamilton's book was the most accessible and useful. As an amateur, I found this book perfect for my needs. Hard to say if someone more experienced would find it as helpful. Then again, someone that has successfully written a biography probably won't be buying a primer.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Antonia

    I like the layout of the book.Even the cover seems not so attractive, the size of words and the layout gave me a very comfortable reading experience. The content is very clear and helpful, I like the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. A good book.

  11. 4 out of 5

    James

    Nothing you don't already know. Nothing you don't already know.

  12. 5 out of 5

    sheila

    From Robert Kelly, Library Journal: "This marvelous work--basically, a how-to book--is comprehensive in its treatment of everything necessary to creating a published biography. Hamilton, who has authored biographies of Field Marshall Montgomery, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton, here leaves nothing unsaid on the subject. He thoroughly details biography's agenda and motivation and describes its target audience, who will expect something of a revelation concerning the human condition...He addition From Robert Kelly, Library Journal: "This marvelous work--basically, a how-to book--is comprehensive in its treatment of everything necessary to creating a published biography. Hamilton, who has authored biographies of Field Marshall Montgomery, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton, here leaves nothing unsaid on the subject. He thoroughly details biography's agenda and motivation and describes its target audience, who will expect something of a revelation concerning the human condition...He additionally scrutinizes autobiography and memoir writing, the consequence of telling the truth, and biography's afterlife. The exceptional excerpts Hamilton selects from published biographies to illustrate his points are both edifying and entertaining." From Sven Birkerts, Boston Globe: "How To Do Biography offers a well-written, sensible, and, given its brevity, fairly encompassing assessment of what it is that a biographer does and how he goes about doing it...Hamilton is quite eloquent and persuasive in discussing how things come around at the end, not only at death, but after, when the life meets posterity." Read an excerpt: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/pdf/HAMHOW...

  13. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    Anyone even thinking of writing a biography about anyone should read this book. This book gives a very gentle, well written, and supportive road map to your crazy, rollercoaster journey of delving into your subjects' lives and trying to make sense of it (and yourself for that matter!). Everyone should follow the first step, which I didn't because I didn't know about this book when I started, WRITE A PROPOSAL FIRST! Numero uno. Definitely. :) A must read, fo' sho'. Anyone even thinking of writing a biography about anyone should read this book. This book gives a very gentle, well written, and supportive road map to your crazy, rollercoaster journey of delving into your subjects' lives and trying to make sense of it (and yourself for that matter!). Everyone should follow the first step, which I didn't because I didn't know about this book when I started, WRITE A PROPOSAL FIRST! Numero uno. Definitely. :) A must read, fo' sho'.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Catherine Pendleton

    This is a great how-to on writing a biography. Very easy to read. I need examples and the author provided many good ones. He includes the history of biography (which I found fascinating) and chapters on writing autobiography, memoirs, and memoir. I’m currently working on a biography and feel like I understand better what goes into one.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Martyn

    Detailed and illuminating book on the art and history of writing biographies. Plenty of extracts from prime examples, accompanied by an intelligent look at why the genre matters and how it can best be achieved.

  16. 4 out of 5

    JP Higgins

    A comprehensive brass tacks analysis of and instruction/advice on this specialty, with examples drawn from Plutarch through David McCullough and seemingly everyone in between (including the author's own works). Artfully written, a swift and enjoyable read. Will clear the fog and inspire you. A comprehensive brass tacks analysis of and instruction/advice on this specialty, with examples drawn from Plutarch through David McCullough and seemingly everyone in between (including the author's own works). Artfully written, a swift and enjoyable read. Will clear the fog and inspire you.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    A perfectly nice little book that was not at all what I was looking for. These are tidbits about what makes a good biography, with examples. I was hoping for some more tangible advice, which I suppose really differs based in who you're writing about. Anyhow, this was fine. A perfectly nice little book that was not at all what I was looking for. These are tidbits about what makes a good biography, with examples. I was hoping for some more tangible advice, which I suppose really differs based in who you're writing about. Anyhow, this was fine.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Josephine

    Hamilton wrote an engaging and eminently useful biography primer. He uses examples from famous biographies to illustrate lessons. I have read other books professing to provide instruction. None have read like a novel, yet provide copious amounts of useful information.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Adrian Rivera

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

  22. 4 out of 5

    Steve Miller

  23. 5 out of 5

    Esteban Herrera

  24. 4 out of 5

    Willie Pinckney

  25. 5 out of 5

    Laura Hayden

  26. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  27. 5 out of 5

    genna

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cal Godot

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tee Bylo

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rick Dikeman

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