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Reading Biographies

I asked my fb friends if they read biographies and the answers ranged from “No, why bother?” to “Yes, that is what I always read, fiction is not real.” (I paraphrase slightly.) Many of my fiction-loving friends said they seldom read biographies. My enthusiastic-teacher friend read a lot of biographies last year, both of really good people (example Mother Teresa) and really bad people (example Eva Braun). Biographies mentioned as worthy of reading by this non-scientifically selected panel were John Adams by David McCollough, anything by Charlotte GrayHappy, Happy, Happy by Phil Robertson, Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Take My Hands by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, and, on the to be read pile, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Of this list, I’ve read Take My Hands. I liked Dr. Ida by Wilson better, but both about medical work in India in the mid-twentieth century if that kind of thing interests you. I can’t comment on the others, but am interested in Gray’s new book called The Massey Murder. It has a kind of Alias Grace flavour, but a different murder is involved.

I read biographies and memoir and letters and diaries of people that interest me, usually for what they’ve done in their lives. For example, I’ve got the three giant volumes of C.S. Lewis’s  Collected Letters on my shelf. I’ve also got Alister McGrath’s biography of Lewis in my to-be-read pile. I’ve read Lewis’s conversion memoir, Surprised by Joy. It is interesting that a lot of biographies of Lewis discount SBJ as inaccurate. Memory and memoir are funny things. I read about the life of C.S. Lewis because he was an academic who wrote a lot, and I admire his writing. I’ve also read a memoir by Richard Feynman, and have a biography of Feynman on my shelf. Feynman was a physicist who worked on the A-Bomb during World War 2, and later taught at CalTech. I’ve studied physics and engineering and so this interests me. It probably doesn’t interest you.

As a teacher, I’ve been interested in biographies and education for a while. I haven’t really done much with that, but there is a research project forming in the back of my mind. Memoir has become a part of teaching — reflecting on one’s own experience to pass on nuggets of wisdom to others. Are there other ways that life stories are involved in teaching? What about actual biographies, researched books about the lives of others? Published journals and diaries? Published letters? How do these feed into learning? Interesting questions. Any thoughts?

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