The Politics section in most bookshops is often an odd one. I think there are two explanations for this. Firstly, it is because books about current affairs usually go out of date very quickly – politics changes pretty much everyday and a lot of books about ongoing events can end up in a bargain bin faster than you can say ‘Yes, we can’. Secondly, I think it is because politics tends to overlap with so many other subjects like history, sociology, economics and biographies. In your average Waterstone’s shop, the Politics section will typically consist of a slew of memoirs and biographies of New Labour era politicians, a couple of AS Level Government and Politics textbooks, some books which claim to explain the origins of the credit crunch/globalisation/some other trendy political buzzword in layman’s terms and maybe a few George W. Bush-bashing books. Overall, it isn’t particularly inspiring and doesn’t really reflect the diversity of the subject especially when there is so much quality political journalism out there. It also demonstrates how books have become sidelined, as far as politics is concerned, in favour of more modern media which can be updated instantly. A 140 character tweet is likely to reach and influence millions more people than an exhaustively researched tome about the state of the nation today. Overall, the cycle of the publishing industry is incompatible with the fickle 24 hour news cycle that we have today.
I still think that political biographies and memoirs are very worthwhile to read. After all, they will eventually become important source material for future historians in years to come. The two are also interesting to compare. Biographies are usually meticulously researched with (hopefully) balanced and objective analysis of the character and actions of the politician in question. Memoirs, on the other hand, are less objective and more about setting the record straight. You only need to look at Anthony Seldon’s excellent biographies of Tony Blair (‘Blair’ published in 2004 followed by ‘Blair Unbound’ in 2007) and the former Prime Minister’s own memoirs (‘A Journey’ published in 2010) to see this. Blair’s chatty, conversational, sometimes lazy writing style surprised me given his outstanding reputation for his oratory skills. His defensive explanation for why he chose to lead Britain into war in Iraq didn’t surprise me. His unnecessary descriptions of his sex life with Cherie just confused me. Both political biographies and memoirs are equally fascinating, but memoirs tend to be more uncomfortable to read than biographies.
As you can see from my photograph, the political biographies in my collection are pretty sizeable books and are all at least 500 pages long. I don’t find it difficult to read long novels or non-fiction books covering a broader time span but political biographies require a fair amount of dedication and existing knowledge on the part of the reader because they concentrate a lot of detail on such a narrow subject. I’ll admit that I’ll probably never finish ‘Lenin’ by Robert Service as my background knowledge of early twentieth century Russia just isn’t deep enough to appreciate the context of Lenin’s life. I have also been putting off reading ‘The Bridge’ by David Remnick which explores the early life and career of Barack Obama and his rise to power but I hope to get round to it very soon as a way of easing myself back into academic reading before my Masters course begins.
Although there are many excellent political biographies out there which offer a great deal of insight into particular politicians and political events, it is much harder to find more general books about politics which are not textbooks. The books that are available are either huge academic tomes or they are packaged as some sort of idiot’s guide. There is very little in between which is a shame. Political books are probably pretty low down on the publishing industry’s list of priorities at the moment but it would be nice to see this gap filled in at some point.
4 responses to “Thoughts About Political Biographies”
I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award !
I have nominated you for the Versatile Blog Award !
I would recommend any of Robert Caro’s volumes on Lyndon Johnson. Landslide Lyndon was one many-faceted SOB, and Caro may be the best biographer there is.
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