This Is Their Life | Page 77 | Newberry

This Is Their Life

            So I had a customer come up to me at a Book fair back in the 20th century and ask, “Where would I find a biography of George Washington?  In History?”

            I really do love these questions.  Without them, what would I blog about?  I pointed out the sign that said “Biography”.

            “Oh,” he said.  “I thought that was just celebrities.”

            Now, ignoring the question of whether the Father of Our Country is a celebrity (after all, there’d be real excitement if he showed up at the grocery store), I can almost understand that.  In fact, not all of our biographies DO go into the Biography section.  This is an argument that goes back into the depths of library controversy, and we have chosen one side of the ancient argument.  This is the side that says people will look for biographies of great scientists, say, in the Science section.  Thus, you will find a life of John Wayne in Show Biz, Bob Dylan in Music, or Martin Luther in Religion.

            But no, you will not find Robert Frost in Poetry.  He’s in Books & Authors.  Friedrich Nietzche, though he did write books, will be in Philosophy, but William Shakespeare will be over in Books and Authors, not at all in Drama.  Poetry is restricted to books of verse, and Drama is plays or excerpts from plays.

            Walter Cronkite, no matter how much History he was involved in, is over in Show Biz, as are any lives of Al Franken, though I may eventually have to switch him over to Biography, where you’ll find Ronald Reagan, who also moved from Show Biz to a wider audience.  I hope they can sit together and play nice.  Sigmund Freud’s life can be found in Psychology, whereas a life of Sandy Koufax is in Sports.  Mike Ditka’s life will be found in Chicago, though, near lives of Richard J. Daley, Michael Jordan, and John Belushi.

            Leonardo DaVinci is in Art, however much he may qualify for Science, while Elvis Presley is in Music, no matter how many movies he made.  (Books about Elvis Presley movies are in Show Biz, but that’s not a biography, see.  Try to stay focused.)

            Are there any biographies in History?  Well, yes, a few: lives of historians, mostly.  Lives of famous antique dealers will be found in Antiques, Margaret Mead’s life will be found in Anthropology   A life of Robert Benchley, however, will be found over in Books and Authors (although James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times is in Humor.)

            So who winds up in Biography?  Well, we like to keep the Political Science section for books about politics, so politicians go to Biography.  Hence George Washington, Winston Churchill, etc.  Books on the life of John F. kennedy are here, though books on his death wind up in law & Crime.  Society’s cream—those people famous for spending money—are here.  (People who make money often wind up in Business, though your nineteenth century millionaires have moved to the relative peace of Biography.)  Members of royal families, who may fall into one or both of the preceding categories, come here.  People whose lives were a simple slice of history—the pioneers who broke the plains, the explorers who crossed the mountains, the ladies whose profession was not mentioned back in the day but who made a lot of difference to the pioneers who broke the plain and the explorers who crossed the mountains—they’re all to be found here.

            What?  Why yes, there are people who are famous for writing biographies.  And yes, yes, you’re right.  We put their biographies in Books and Authors.


The situation would be different if biography was recognized as a form of knowledge in its own right. Let me illustrate: I know a great deal about biographies of Richard Feynman but I know very little about quantum mechanics.

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