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March 14 2020
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“‘Life writing,’ as some people call biography these days, can take many forms,” says Casey Cep, the author of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, out in paperback from Vintage next month. Cep’s book is neither a true-crime thriller nor a traditional biography, but rather an excellent mixture of the two, chosen by President Obama as one of his favorites of 2019. Here, the author—whose own book was born in part of her love for “the tradition of untraditional biographers,” she says—recommends three others in the genre that “make good writing seem contagious—as if trying to write about a good writer is a way of becoming a better one yourself.”

Out of Sheer Rage, by Geoff Dyer

One of the best biographies I’ve ever read is, by any reasonable standard, one of the worst ever written. Once upon a time, Geoff Dyer decided he was going to write a “sober, academic study” of the writer D. H. Lawrence, but instead he wrote Out of Sheer Rage.The plot, if you could call it that, involves Dyer going around the world to all the places where Lawrence lived—England, Sicily, Mexico, New Mexico—but failing to write about Lawrence while he is there. Instead, Dyer writes about food, writer’s block, television, travel, motorcycles, seat belts, and everything else. His sentences swell with the anxiety of an idea unfulfilled, a project unfinished, and a writerly debt unpaid, and yet the book is joyfully fulfilling, finished, and priceless. (Apparently Lawrence had done a similar thing to Thomas Hardy, so all’s fair in love and literary influence.)

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