Penguin Lives Are Good Reading

Penguin Lives Are Good Reading by pendragon I far prefer non-fiction to much of the dreck (yes, that’s a word) published by fiction imprints. I’m not so fond of biography, though, because there seems to be no end to repetition with the more famous individuals and it is difficult to know when you have selected a thoughtful work until you have read it. Imagine my pleasure at being given two of the Pengiun Group publishing Penguin Lives books.

No, this has nothing to do with Linux nor antarctic fowl.  Penguin Lives are a collection of books about famous people, written by famous authors.  Jane Smiley wrote about Charles Dickens and Carol Shields (“The Stone Diaries“) about Jane Austen.  I quickly sped through Roy Blount, Jr.’s, Robert E. Lee and Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse.

Blount’s account of Lee was spectacular and, as someone interested in the Civil War, the Penguin Lives format was sufficient to give me a solid bibliography as well as Blount’s commentary on some of the resources he used.  The short format means that you can get a quick snapshot – none of these books appears to attempt to be the definitive resource – on the subject without a significant investment of time.  It was just the springboard I was hoping for, especially with someone like Lee, who has been the subject of an extraordinary number of volumes.  Blount’s an excellent writer, which appears to be a prerequisite for all Lives authors.

The Crazy Horse volume is less useful, although McMurtry is clearly a masterful story teller.  He just has little to work with, and so the volume gets lost in discussions of other famous native leaders, or with their nemeses, like Crook or Custer.  The latter in particular gets significant coverage, for it is his last stand that is one of Crazy Horse’s greatest legacies.  The destruction of Custer’s 7th Cavalry troops at Little Big Horn is, in McMurtry’s hands, a well-balanced account of who really did what.  It was also sufficient to let me know that, while the Sioux, among the many natives on the Great Plains, are a worthwhile subject of further reading, additional readings on Crazy Horse are unlikely to yield much additional information.

I can hardly wait to get started on my next Penguin Lives volume.  The Lee volume has already lead me to General Porter Alexander’s (C.S.A.) military memoirs as well as a long list of other worthwhile sources.

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David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.