Reading With Writing in Mind: A Tale of Two Great Biographies


It is an interesting exercise to read with writing in mind. Even if a book you are reading is amazing and brilliant, it is still worthwhile as a writer to think about how you would have written it differently. With this in mind, in this post I compare and contrast to great biographies I read recently, paying attention to the ways in which the biographer chose to write his story, and imagine how I would have done things differently…

Over the past year, I have become increasingly interested in the genre of biography, and am considering writing a biography for my next project. I have therefore embarked on what is quite possibly the most delightful stage of writing history: the vague undefined research stage during which you don’t actually have anything you have to read. In essence, that means I get to read whatever I want. Over time my reading list will narrow, focus, and get infinitely longer, but for now I am enjoying this phase.

I decided to start by reading lots of biographies, limited only by whether I was interested in them or not—biographies of men and women, of people long dead and still alive, of scientists, politicians, military generals, artists, intellectuals, and adventurers. The purpose of this eclectic study of biography is to gather a broad awareness of how biographers treat their subjects within the context of their time, how biographers create a powerful narrative given the already determined story arc of an individual’s life, and how biographers handle the varying amount and quality of sources available to them.

Recently I read two biographies back-to-back: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss and John Adams by David McCullough.

The Black Count tells the swashbuckling story of Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806), father of the famous novelist. Dumas was a general in the French Army before and during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and many of his adventures served as inspiration for his son’s book The Count of Monte Cristo. He was also half-black. The book masterfully weaves the history of race in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary France into the biography, unveiling a little known and all-too-brief period of relative tolerance and even acceptance that allowed a black man to become a highly respected officer and rise to the rank of General.

John Adams, of course, tells the story of American Founding Father and second President of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826). The American Revolution takes a backseat in this book as we follow Adams and his family to Europe, where he serves as American Minister to France, the Netherlands, and England. It is truly a story of a man in his time, and the biography focuses on the Adams family and Adams’s timeless relationship with his wife, Abigail.

The two books share many elements: Both books won the Pulitzer Prize for biography (John Adams in 2002 and The Black Count in 2013); they are both about men who played an important role in their countries’ revolutions (Dumas on the battlefield and Adams in diplomacy); both books cover a similar time in history; both books are set in large part in pre-Revolutionary France; and both books are exceptional—among the very best books I’ve ever read.

What was most interesting to me in reading these books back-to-back was not the similarities, but the differences. It was an interesting exercise to mull over these differences and imagine how I would have written these biographies myself.

When outlining a project it is just as important to think about what you will not write about as it is to think about what you will write about. It is impossible to write about everything, and one of the most critical choices an author makes is what to leave in and what to leave out. There are many factors influencing an authors choices, including available resources (you can’t write about something for which you have minimal evidence or sources, no matter how much you would love to include it in your book!) and the author’s individual expertise and interests (a historian of gender, for example, is more interested in and qualified to write about the gendered aspects of a story while an economic historian will mostly likely focus on the economic or business aspects).

While reading these two biographies I paid close attention to what was left out of each and was able to identify one great strength of each book that was not shared by the other.

I found The Black Count to offer a more satisfying history of the time period. In addition to following the story arc of the hero’s life, the book also discussed the origins and details of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. In John Adams, on the other hand, the American Revolution was almost a side-story. On occasion, a battle was mentioned, but there was minimal discussion of the war itself.

A great strength of John Adams was the ways in which the characters and their personal relationships were developed. By the end of the book, I felt as if I knew John and Abigail and could imagine would they would do or say in certain circumstances. I felt like they were dear friends of mine, and as the book drew to an end and I knew their deaths were imminent, I turned each page with a sense of dread. In The Black Count, there was definitely a biographical element, and Dumas’s life was central to the book, but there was not quite the emotional attachment to the character. This was due, in large part I’d imagine, to the nature of each author’s sources. McCullough had at his disposal an incredible collection of heartfelt, personal, and emotional correspondences, while Reiss’s sources on his subject’s personal life were much more scarce.

Remember, these are my personal perceptions, and the results of an interesting thought experiment. In the end I think both of these books are excellent. This was just an exercise for myself as a writer, to push myself to examine a book beyond the successfully published final version and ask the questions, “what is missing?” and “what would I have done differently? They are worthwhile questions any writer should ask of any book.