Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Book Review: Secret Lives of Great Authors

When I taught English literature, I had a hard time trying to decide what interesting facts to tell my students. Since I was at a fairly conservative school, I tried to keep most of the trivia I presented PG (or PG-13 in some cases) since I never knew what my students would say to their parents or other teachers. For instance, I had a rather upset art teacher come to me after my students started noting the connection between literary and artistic prowess and drug use.

The other thing I have learned from teaching English is that supposedly scandalous behavior is considerably tamer when you know the context and the reality behind the headline. For instance, it is well-known that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s inspiration for “Kubla Kahn” was (supposedly) an opium-induced dream, but comparatively few people know that Coleridge’s opium use was socially acceptable behavior (relatively speaking) and was due to a number of physical ailments.

Consequently, I approached Robert Schnakenberg’s Secret Lives of Authors with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Its cover, which mimics the garish covers of tabloids, advertises the foibles of the great authors in question. For instance, it shows Ernest Hemingway attacking a critic and Louisa May Alcott caressing a bottle of opium. However, to Schnakenberg’s credit, he does not leave the reader thinking that Alcott was a druggie or that Hemingway attacked random people. Instead, he is able to concisely give the contextual information necessary for us to make sense of the authors’ more eccentric behavior.

The book’s layout definitely contributes to its success. While Secret Lives of Great Authors is addicting, it is not necessary to read the book cover to cover. Instead, the arrangement, which has the authors in separate chapters, includes a handy fact-sheet on each author (with information such as dates of birth and death and major works) as well as a brief biography of each subject. Due to this arrangement, Secret Lives of Authors can be used as a quick reference. Although it doesn’t necessarily give a complete picture of the authors, the facts it contains help augment what is known about these figures and make them seem more interesting and well-rounded.

Although the authors included are mostly from the classical canon, Schnakenberg also includes some contemporary figures such as J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and Toni Morrison. Certainly, the idea of greatness is subjective, but if Schnakenberg errs on the side of caution a bit too much, this is somewhat understandable. He capably balances well-known (but odd) facts with some more obscure details. Consequently, he mentions both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s penchant for drinking and Fitzgerald’s intense hatred for crossword puzzles.

Overall, Secret Lives of Great Authors makes an often entertaining and occasionally edifying read. While I wouldn’t leave it out for high school freshman and sophomores to peruse at their leisure, I highly recommend it for literature lovers and English teachers (just be certain to use your discretion).


ebbye said...

Fantastic review - thank you.

I am dying to read this book, in fact I love all Quirk Books and just blogged about this one and linked to this review.

~ Elana