I just finished Amanda Vickery’s book on women in the 18th and early 19th centuries, The Gentleman’s Daughter, and I enjoyed it very much; I learned a lot from it, it was very well written, and it had cool pictures — lots to like there! I hope to post on it again soon.
But having finished one nonfiction book, my eye was just caught by two others, one of which has to do with the same time period as Vickery’s book. It’s Posthumous Keats by Stanley Plumly, and I heard about it in a New Yorker review by Adam Kirsch. I love Keats, and so any book about him would catch my eye, but this one focuses on ideas about death and immortality and is subtitled “A Personal Biography,” both of which sound particularly appealing. Here is what Kirsch says about it:
Instead of simply recounting the life and analyzing the poems, Plumly pursues his intuitions through a series of linked essays, all of them concerned with aspects of the poet’s death and afterlife … Through this interweaving of themes and episodes—a “walk around in Keats’s life and art, not simply through them”—Plumly emphasizes, as a more conventional biography never could, the fatal, fated quality of Keats’s career. He shows how Keats, in a way that feels unique even among the doomed Romantics, became posthumous while he was still alive.
Everything about this appeals to me, from the pursuit of intuitions to the series of linked essays to the quotation about walking around in Keats’s life and art. I do love biographies that take unusual approaches (although truthfully I haven’t read that many, which doesn’t make sense, but … it’s true). This sentence from Kirsch was interesting:
To understand why Keats meditated so constantly on death, it is not necessary to look to his biography; one need only listen to his writing.
Plumly’s book is biographical, and yet from what I can tell from the review, it doesn’t look for easy answers in the biography, but makes more complicated arguments about the relationship of art and life.
Perhaps I should read a more conventional biography of Keats too, but this kind of book appeals to me more.
The other book that caught my eye also came from the New Yorker. One of their short reviews mentioned Collections of Nothing by William Davies King, an autobiographical book about collecting things nobody wants, like food packages and labels and illustrations from old dictionaries. Collecting as a hobby doesn’t really interest me, but something about a person who collections illustrations from old dictionaries does. And I like the idea of an autobiography told from a particular slant. Here’s what the review says:
What makes this book, bred of a midlife crisis, extraordinary is the way King weaves his autobiography into the account of his collection, deftly demonstrating that the two stories are essentially one.
Now that I think about it, midlife crises don’t interest me either, but still, I want to read this book! The author strikes me Nicholson Baker-esque, and you all know how I feel about Nicholson Baker. Plus the author spent hours in the Yale library “reading the most obscure books he could find.” Doesn’t he sound interesting?
This is my favorite kind of nonfiction — the kind that takes a familiar genre such as biography or autobiography and tweaks it a little to create something new.