Why I read biographies

November 27, 2016

A typical biography relying upon individuals’ notorious memories and the anecdotes they’ve invented contains a high degree of fiction, yet is considered ‘nonfiction.Joyce Carol Oates

I never wanted to do biography just to tell the life of a famous man. I always wanted to use the life of a man to examine political power, because democracy shapes our lives. Robert Caro

Biography – a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified. Jose Ortega y Gasset

Biography is, simply, the orphan of academia. Nigel Hamilton


I am an avid reader of biographies. What attracts me to them? I love reading about familiar people, but also those I had never heard about before. There are biographers who specialise in hatchet jobs; the American Kitty Kelley comes to mind. She is well-known for her unauthorised biographies of Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, the British royal family, the Bush family and Oprah Winfrey. I have to confess that I did buy a copy of The Royals, which was banned in the UK, in Spain. Before taking it to my mum, I did read it myself, and I have to admit it was a page-turner. Generally I don’t go in for the type of biography that just aims for the jugular . Nevertheless, I don’t want a hagiography – I don’t believe in heroes – I prefer the warts and all approach. I like the dirt, but there needs to be some attempt to bring perspective to the life of the subject In this sense I really enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of Steve Jobs, which I thought got the delicate balance mostly right.

I think I do prefer biographies over autobiographies, as I think the latter can be self-serving. On the other hand you do get a peek into the person’s head. You hear their rationale for the life they lived. But sometimes self-knowledge can be lacking. A business leader may have done a brilliant job with their company, but it doesn’t mean that they will be able to provide an insightful analysis of why they were successful. This is why I tend to prefer the outside perspective. But this has its limitations too – they were not there when the events took place Of course, if I have enough time I like to read both. Even then, you are highly unlikely to find the one definitive version of the truth of what really happened. I’ll have to do another post about faking it for biographies.

We tend to use memoir and autobiography interchangeably.  Indeed, Amazon and many high street bookshops place them in the same category. However, they are quite different. The dummies.com website has a handy summary of these differences:

An autobiography

Focuses on the trajectory of an entire life

Starts at the beginning and progresses chronologically to the end

Feels more like a historical document; tons of fact-checking and very specific dates/information

Strives for factual, historical truths

Typically is written by famous people

A memoir

Focuses on a key aspect, theme, event, or choice in a life

Starts anywhere and can deftly move around in time and place

Feels more personal; less intense fact-checking

Strives for emotional truths

Can be written by anyone

So what are my favourite biographical genres? Well, the Amazon website includes Artists, Architects & Photographers, Business & Finance, Film, Television & Music, Historical, Novelists Poets & Playwrights, Political, Sport, Tragic Life Stories, True Crime and War & Espionage. Historical is undoubtedly my favourite. There are so many historical figures whose lives fascinate me. In fact, they don’t have to be important figures – the lives of ordinary people caught up in historical events. A curious genre is that of the biographies/ autobiographies which are about things, not people. I do enjoy this conceit and here are a few relevant examples:

The Universe A Biography John Gribbin

The Emperor of All Maladies A Biography of Cancer Mukherjee Siddhartha

Jerusalem The Biography Simon Sebag-Montefiore

Money The Unauthorized Biography Felix Martin

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World Mark Kurlansky

There is a genre which I have little time for – the celebrity memoir. Katie Price, a celebrity in the UK, is apparently on her sixth. It reminds of the joke from the Spanish equivalent of Spitting Image about a footballer publishing his second autobiography: Raul – the only person to have written more books than he has read. I don’t care much for this type of sporting biography, but there are others which are well reading. The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s expose of Lance Armstrong’s machinations was a fascinating look at the world of professional cycling. Of course Hamilton is another player in the scandal who is trying to show his behaviour in the most favourable light.  To interest me a book has to show me the life and times of the protagonist. But they do have some rather naff titles, often involving wordplay. Here are a few of my favourites:

Camp David David Walliams

Don’t Hassel the Hoff David Hasselhoff

I Am Not Spock  Leonard Nimoy  The follow-up was called  rather confusingly I Am Spock.

Losing My Virginity Richard Branson

My Booky Wook  Russell Brand

sTORI Telling Tori Spelling The Beverly Hills, 90210 star’s sequel was called Uncharted TerriTori.

The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz Ron Jeremy, a famous porn star I’ve been told.

Young Winstone Ray Winstone

Some times biographies can go into a lot of detail. I am currently reading Le Corbusier: A Life by Nicholas Fox Weber. The book about the Swiss-born architect and urbanist has 848 pages and I have to admit that I’m struggling. It’s a bit too much information. But he is the master of brevity compared to others. We have Robert Caro and his massive unfinished project about the life of Lyndon Johnson. In 1982 Caro published The Path to Power, which was supposed to be the first of a trilogy about LBJ. This was followed by Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate (2002), and The Passage of Power (2012). But there is more. The fifth and final volume has yet to be published will cover Vietnam, the Great Society and civil rights era, his decision not to run again in 1968, and his life after the presidency. I know these are critically acclaimed books, but life is too short to read the more than 3,000 pages he has published so far. All I can say is thank God that cryonics hasn’t been used successfully. Earlier this year the biographer Norman Sherry died. After being named as Graham Greene’s official biographer in 1974 he published three volumes in 1989, 1994 and 1999 respectively. Exasperated by the slow progress of Sherry Greene prophesised:

“I will live to see your first volume, but not your second. And you will not live to see the third.” In the end two of Greene’s three predictions came true, but Sherry did live long enough to see his project through.

I will finish with a list of tern excellent biographies/autobiographies/memoirs that I have read in the last twenty years or so:

  1. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly Anthony Bourdain
  2. Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir Frank McCourt
  3. Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela
  4. Steve Jobs Walter Isaacson
  5. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China Jung Chang
  6. Endgame Frank Brady  (Bobby Fischer)
  7. London : The Biography  Peter Ackroyd
  8. In Plain Sight The Life and Lies of Jimmy Saville Dan Davies
  9. Goddess of the Market Jennifer Burns  (Ayn Rand )
  10. Churchill Roy Jenkins

We couldn’t make this stuff up – did celebrities really write this?

November 27, 2016

 It’s a very simple idea – get comedians to read actual excerpts from celebrity autobiographies. It was a TV show and became a hit Off- Broadway show. It’s a few years old now, but it’s still very funny.  Here are a couple of the ones I liked but check out David Hasselhoff and Tiger Woods too:

Ivana Trump


Miley Cyrus


2016 and the Words of the Year

November 19, 2016

It’s that time of year when a number of prestigious English-language dictionaries come out with their words of the year. This week I saw Oxford Dictionaries had come out with their word the year, which was post-truth, as in post truth politics. Here is a video in which they discuss their choices:

  1. post-truth
  2. alt-right
  3. glass cliff
  4. hygge
  5. chatbot
  6. adulting
  7. Brexiteer
  8. woke
  9. coulrophobia
  10. Latinx

Before them Collins had already made their choice. Brexit. Here we have a video in which we can see the highly professional lexicographers they have:

  1. Brexit
  2. dude food
  3. hygge
  4. JOMO
  5. mic drop
  6. sharenting
  7. snowflake generation
  8. throw shade
  9. Trumpism
  10. uberization

As you can see, although there is some overlap between the lists, there are a number of differences too. I suppose Brexit was a pretty obvious choice, but event of the last ten days or so have meant that Brexit is not alone. In this sense post-truth was a good choice. I am, however, sceptical that there was ever a golden age of politics when truth flourished. Wasn’t it Churchill who said that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on? It is true that the fragmentation of news sources has allowed the proliferation of lies, rumour and gossip masquerading as the news.

The alt-right is another frightening term. I first became aware of this counter-cultural right-wing movement. They are a countercultural movement who abhor mainstream politics, using online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content. They oppose immigration, multiculturalism and political correctness. In part they may be a reaction to left-wing intolerance- all that nonsense about safe spaces and no platforming. Be that as it may, this group is disgusting. It is a bit depressing, but not particularly surprising that white supremacism, should be alive and well in the 21st century.  Here is a video about the phenomenon:

I don’t know how the Danish word hygge, pronounced ‘hooga’, made it onto the list. The VisitDenmark website defines it thus:

Creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family – that’s hygge too. There’s nothing more hygge than sitting round a table, discussing the big and small things in life. Perhaps hygge explains why the Danes are the happiest people in the world?

2016 did not seem to be characterised by this at all. Coulrophobia, the extreme or irrational fear of clowns, had to be there after all those alleged clown sightings, which began in the USA, but have now spread all over the planet.

Then we have Uberization. I had been meaning to do a post about the sharing economy but I haven’t got round to it yet. Sharenting, the habitual use of social media to share news, images, etc of one’s children and snowflake generation, the young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations, are the type of words you get on the WordSpy blog, which I regularly feature on this blog.

So there we have it. 2016 is coming to a close. I’ll leave you with a tweet from the BBC’S Have I Got News for You Twitter feed:

As the OED declares post-truth its word of the year based on Trump’s election campaign, next year’s word is revealed to be post-apocalypse.


Slavoj Žižek: How Political Correctness Actually Elected Donald Trump

November 19, 2016

Before the election Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek said he would vote for Trump if he were American. He felt that Hillary Clinton was the bigger danger. Here he explains why.

He’s got the best words – the language of Donald Trump

November 13, 2016

Well, it actually happened. Donald J. Trump will be the 45th president of the U.S.A. Just before the election I heard a BBC podcast, The Verb, which describes itself as “cabaret of the word, featuring the best poetry, new writing and performance.” A recent   episode posed the question: Are we really living in a Post Factual world? The first part looked at the language of Trump. The panellists were asked to name their favourite examples of Trumpspeak. Here’s what they came up with:

  • His constant repetition of Wrong! during debates without the mediation of any actual facts.
  • He would refer to people as weak or losers –or even better weak losers.
  • I know words. I have all the best words.

Today I want to look at the idiolect of Donald Trump. No, idiolect does not mean the language of idiots.  Wikipedia defines idiolect as “an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech. This unique usage encompasses vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.” No two individual speak the exact same language. We all pronounce words slightly differently, have different inflections in our voices, and choose different words to refer to the same thing. The internet is rich in sources analysing the words of the Donald.

What are the characteristics of Trump’s language? Braggadocio and hyperbole are always near the surface.  Huge, tremendous, unbelievable, amazing, terrific and the best were all used to describe his particular vision of the world. The language website, yourdictionary.com has a slideshow Donald Trump’s 20 Most Frequently Used Words. They say that the words have been specially chosen to undermine the listener’s trust in government, the media, and politicians and the numbers and facts which they present. Here is a brief summary:

  • It will change. We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.
  • (on the State Department) It is the level of stupidity that is incredible. I’m telling you, I used to use the word incompetent. Now I just call them stupid.
  • All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak. Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.
  • Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser — having a healthy ego, or high opinion of yourself, is a real positive in life!
  • I’m, like, a really smart person.
  • Mike Tyson endorsed me. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. I like that. OK?
  • (on stopping Muslim immigration to the US) Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses.
  • The failing @nytimes is truly one of the worst newspapers. They knowingly write lies and never even call to fact check. Really bad people!
  • I have had tremendous success.
  • (on Obamacare) Repeal and replace with something terrific.
  • Our country is out of control.
  • Remember when I tore down the Bonwit Teller store on Fifth Ave.? The Times whined at me that I was tearing down a “stupendously luxurious mix of limestone, bronze, platinum and hammered aluminium,” but look what I built – something truly classy, Trump Tower

He has an informal style scattering his talk with conversational turn signals like ‘I mean,’ ‘OK?’ and ‘Can you believe that?’ His use of repetition is particularly effective. In this YouTube video, How Donald Trump Answers A Question?, Nerdwriter1 analyses Trump’s answer to one particular question on the Jimmy Kimmel talk show: Isn’t it un-American and wrong to discriminate against people based on their religion? His one-minute, 220-word answer gives an insight into Trumpspeak. Of these 222 words 78% contain one syllable and 17% have two syllables. There are just four words three syllables long and three of those are tremendous. Finally there are two words with more than three syllables. He couldn’t avoid California, because it is shorter than San Bernardino, where the shootings took place. And he doesn’t actually pronounce all of temporary.

He does not tend to finish his sentences. With all his going off on a tangent and digressions transcribing his words must have been a real challenge. Here is a classic example of his style from a speech he gave in Sun City, South Carolina, on July 21 2015:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right — who would have thought?), but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it’s all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don’t, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.

When it comes to understanding a person. It is often functional words such as pronouns, articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and conjunctions that tell us how speakers are connecting with their audiences. This is the idea behind James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns. Using a free corpus analysis software program, Katelyn Guichelaar and Kristin Du Mez analysed seven Trump speeches. With respect to Trump, what stands out is the frequency with which he references himself. Trump says I, me, or my 850 times in these seven speeches. He says I 700 times, me 94 times, my 56 times, mine 5 times, and myself 2 times out of the total 25,722 words in the corpus. What this all means is that 3.3% of his words are self-references, which is a remarkably high figure by the standards of any typical corpus. Clinton figure is 1.9%, and he was also considerable higher than all his Republican challengers in the primaries. Another feature of Trumpspeak is the way he refers to himself in the third person. For instance, “Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump. My favourite example of this was a tweet during the primaries:

‘Missouri just confirmed a victory for Donald Trump. He actually gained votes in the recount and picks up an additional 12 delegates.

To his critics Donald Trump’s language is nonsense, word salad and Palinesque. His language is said to contain the vocabulary of a nine-year old. But this doesn’t bother Trump. He has an informal style. Winston Churchill he is not. But political discourse has become this way in the last fifty years. And there is no doubt that Trump has mastered this skill. He may have a tenuous relartionship with facts, but we are going to have to get used to him for at least another four years.



Donald Trump’s “Linguistic Kill Shots”

November 13, 2016

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, was able to see the ability of Trump to persuade the electorate. What can bring down Donald Trump? Adams thinks that there is no defence and correctly predicted his victory at the polls.

No, your ex is not a psycho and why we shouldn’t diagnose Donald Trump

November 6, 2016

My ex is a psycho.

I’m so OCD about this project!

I Can’t Focus; It’s My ADHD.

You may well have heard similar expressions. And it’s not just in popular discourse. The extract below comes from a 2010 article, Politicians’ wives are not the story in the prestigious British newspaper, the Guardian:

Twentieth-century legislation giving women the vote, and much later the right to equal pay for work of equal value, has not prevented a schizophrenic attitude – at least in Britain – if you are the wife of a “celebrity”.

This article was subsequently amended. The use of schizophrenic contravenes the Guardian’s style guide, which states that this term should only be used in a medical context. It was replaced by two-minded. I think contradictory or ambivalent would have been better. Later in the same year the Guardian’s sister paper, the Observer, described TV presenter Gok Wan’s dress sense as “schizophrenic”. Pierre Lellouche, the French Minister for Europe described the UK Tory party’s approach to the EU as autistic. In an article for the Sunday Times, the writer Robert Harris described Gordon Brown and Richard Nixon as displaying “political Asperger’s syndrome“. The International Monetary Fund’s September 2011 World Economic Outlook characterised a volatile global economy as “bipolar”. There are many more examples. We say to commit suicide even though killing yourself is no longer a crime. Somebody who is angry is not ‘psychotic’. And finally I’m not wild about the use of phobia in xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia, suggesting some kind of medical condition.

In a sense psychiatry has become a victim of its own success. These terms have become part of the public discourse, like all that awful psychobabble, such as closure, in denial, co-dependency and issues.  The problem with using casual metaphors about mental conditions is that these words have real meaning, and you are trivialising and stigmatising them at the same time.  Just because someone likes to put their books in alphabetical order does not mean that they have OCD. The case of schizophrenic is particularly egregious. To put my pedant’s hat on, it is also being used incorrectly. Schizophrenic does not mean in two minds. It has absolutely nothing to do with multiple personalities. Schizophrenia does indeed mean split mind but the mind is split with reality, not itself. A 2007 study of the terms “schizophrenia” and “schizophrenic” in the UK national press found that 11% of references were metaphorical, with the broadsheets, see above, more likely to use the term in this way than the tabloids. In the US the figure was said to be 28%. By contrast, cancer was only used in this manner in 0.02% of cases. Likewise if someone puts four sugars in their tea we do not say, “Don’t be so diabetic!”

Here is a lovely video which explains all this:

It is, however, very difficult to stop humans from employing metaphors. It’s what we do. In a previous post, Living in a metaphor, I argued that metaphors are a fundamental part of how we communicate. Words change their meaning with usage and it is very hard to stop this. There is no Czar in charge of word meanings. I have been guilty of a number of the sins I have listed above. Nevertheless, it is a good thing to be aware of what we are saying. The Time to Change website has this section, where they critique the language of the media and provide some alternative suggestions:

Avoid using:

  1. ‘a psycho’ or ‘a schizo’
  2. ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘a depressive’
  3. ‘lunatic’ ‘nutter’ ‘unhinged’ ‘maniac’ ‘mad’
  4. ‘the mentally ill’, ‘a person suffering from’ ‘a sufferer’, a ‘victim’ or ‘the afflicted’
  5. ‘prisoners’ or ‘inmates’ (in a psychiatric hospital)
  6. ‘released’ (from a hospital)
  7. ‘happy pills’

Instead try:

  1. ‘a person who has experienced psychosis’ or ‘a person who has schizophrenia’
  2. someone who ‘has a diagnosis of’ is ‘currently experiencing’ or ‘is being treated for…
  3. ‘a person with a mental health problem’
  4. ‘mental health patients’ or ‘people with mental health problems’
  5. ‘patients’, ‘service users’ or clients
  6. ‘discharged’
  7. ‘antidepressants’, ‘medication’ or ‘prescription drugs’

And we have the recent controversy about the mental health of Donald J. Trump. There is a lot of armchair psychologising going on. Whenever I hear Trump I think of what is known in psychology as the dark triad of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. Recently there has been a petition at #DiagnoseTrump calling for mental health professionals “to come forward and urge the Republican party to insist that their nominee has an evaluation to determine his mental fitness for the job.”  According to the petition, Trump appears to exhibit all the symptoms of the mental disorder Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

The US magazine the Atlantic published a psychological evaluation of Trump, written by Dan P. McAdams, a psychology professor, who provides a firm diagnosis, despite the fact that Trump declined to be interviewed and did not give his authorisation for publication. This is grossly unfair and unethical; it goes against the Goldwater rule, AKA Section 7.3 of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) code of ethics, which states that professionals should not offer public opinions on people they have not personally examined:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

We need a bit of background here Barry Goldwater was the Republican Party’s nominee for president in the 1964 election. He was a controversial figure, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He thought the parts that outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants, cinemas etc. were a violation of individual liberty. What is germane to this post is that in 1964 Fact magazine published the article The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater. The title was a bit of wordplay on Goldwater’s own book title, The Conscience of a Conservative. They polled psychiatrists about American Senator Barry Goldwater and whether he was fit to be president. He filed a libel suit in response to the article; he won $75,000 in damages. He was less successful in the election, suffering a landslide defeat to Lyndon Johnson, getting 38.5% of the popular vote and gaining only 52 votes in the Electoral College.

In another recent All in The Mind Podcast Dr Margaret McCartney criticised this way of diagnosing Trump. Like the casual metaphors above, it both trivialises and stigmatises mental health issues. I’ll leave you with McCartney’s own conclusion about Trump:

It s obvious that Trump is sexist and racist. He’s vile in his nastiness, undiplomatic, and offensive: a true dog’s dinner of a presidential candidate, if you really hated your dog. But none of this means that he has a psychiatric condition. It just means that he’s a horrible man.