Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

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Why we read biographies

Between coffee and toiletries this morning, I spotted a one-page obituary on Irving Kristol in the Economist. So I read it.

It clarified for me some reasons why we enjoy reading biographies -- even a one page obituary, well written, of a life well lived.

1. Biographies stir our desire to imitate; and imitating well gives us pleasure. Aristotle once said : "Imitation is natural to men from childhood onward ... (of all creatures) men are the most imitative ... and learn by imitation ... it is natural for everyone to take pleasure in works of imitation." Biographies motivate us to emulate lives well-lived so we can live our own lives well.

2. Biographies remind us there may be greatness embedded in the most ordinary of life's circumstances. There's that old adage: "I didn't know X before he was X" -- as in: "I didn't know George Washington before he was George Washington." This means you knew George, perhaps, when he was just a kid, long before he became a great general and first president of the United States. It's pleasurable to find out that X-the-nobody turned out to be X-the-somebody because, wow, who would have thunk it? All he did was chop down that cherry tree... And so we are encouraged to see more value in our own days of (apparently) small things.

3. Biographies are windows into times and worlds other than our own. And so biography is armchair travel in the finest sense of the term. It is not travel into a fantasy world, as reading fictional works would be, but travel into our world -- but our world at another time and another place. Of course the biographer has spun his version of the story for you. But that just means you need to read several biographies of the same person. It takes nothing away from the fact that biographies are about actual lives lived in the actual world. And so biographies stretch us to appreciate just how varied this world -- in other places and at other times -- can be from our own.

4. Biographies celebrate the fact that life, indeed, is a journey. Reading them gives us pause to stop and assess our own journey: where we are in it; how we've conducted ourselves along it; what there is of it still up ahead.

And how much better we can live what remains, now that so much has already been lived.


Hebrews 6.11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Hebrews 12.1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Zechariah 4.10 For who hath despised the day of small things...? (KJV)

The citation from Aristotle comes from his Poetics 1448b6-9.


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