Finding a good biography is like a mushroom hunt: on the surface, one mushroom looks pretty much like any other one. But beneath the surface, some are delicious and healthy, and some are inedible and even poisonous. Here are the main categories into which biographies fall:

Fanciful or Indecipherable

Hagiographies (the Greek adjective hagios means "holy") usually are accounts written for a "captive audience," an in-group whose identity is inextricably linked to the biographer's subject: John Wesley for Methodists, Francis of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux, or Mother Teresa for Roman Catholics, and so on. Hagiographies do not acknowledge evidence that contradicts their squeaky-clean image of the subject. The authors write as if their subjects lived above the quirks and quandaries of ordinary mortals, impervious to temptation, let alone sin. In short, hagiographies strike most readers as either fanciful or depressing.

Critical biographies, meanwhile, almost always come from academic presses (publishers named after a university), though not all academic-press biographies belong in this category. The virtue of critical biographies is that they look carefully, often exhaustively, at every facet of their subject's life. Their downside is that most get bogged down with analytical hair-splitting and jargon decipherable only to guild members. These are more repositories of research than stories to savor.

A Middle Ground

Some biographies are written by scholars who write for a general audience. Such scholars know that most of their readers are looking not only for depth of detail but also for illumination and nourishment. They paint a well-rounded, critical portrait of their subject, but they add the sorts of narrative elements ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.