February 28, 2013
In A Pickle
Scroll through Amazon's top-selling books of 2012 and you'll see the expected assortment: The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, scads and scads of "practical" books (SAT prep guides, cookbooks, The Power of Habit), John Grisham. What you don't see are biographies. I count only two: Walter Isaacson's profile of the very recently deceased Steve Jobs and a new Thomas Jefferson book by Jon Meacham, the former editor-in-chief of Newsweek and a current editor at Random House.
I can't/won't make any grand cultural claims about the genre, but on a personal level, to give you a sense of where I'm going to be coming from, there's this: I was markedly more interested in biographies when I was 12 than I am now. I remember my excitement at seeing Rickey Henderson's auto (with John Shea) on the New Releases shelf at the Salinas Public Library in 1993, and devouring the behind-the-scenes tales, down to his birth in a car on the way to the hospital on Christmas. In more recent times, though, I've probably read more biography-of-a-thing books than biographies of humans (think Robert Sullivan's Rats or C.J. Chivers's The Gun). I still read nonfiction books and I still read about people (a good New Yorker profile may give me more joy than any other type of magazine piece), but I don't read nonfiction books about people.
The why of this disconnect does not boil down to a sole cause. The mishmash at the heart of it involves who I married (I just asked my wife about the last biography she read—she shrugged), cultural elitism (biographies are so mainstream, bro), available time (billing like a lawyer and writing like a blogger means that Scott Pilgrim looks a lot more inviting than the latest tome on Abraham Lincoln), and, most crucially, readily available information. Why would I read 300 pages on Rickey Henderson when I can get the CliffsNotes version on Wikipedia and have his stats and salary a