Monday, November 15, 2010

Two Books

Two new books--both purporting to be autobiographies--came out in print last week, both of which interested me enough to purchase. But, when it came down to a choice between one or the other, even though neither author will receive a penny of the proceeds, I picked the one who work I knew I could trust to be entertaining, if not entirely accurate.

No, I did not buy a copy of Decision Points, even though I am likely to at some point for much the same reason. Instead, I chose to buy a copy (albeit electronic) of Samuel Clemens' autobiography, otherwise known as the Autobiography of Mark Twain.

Since I haven't read either volume it would of course be a bit premature for comments on the works, but even before I open either one, there are some significant differences in the two works that swayed my decision.

First of all, even though he didn't actually write this work, Clemens did at least dictate it. This may seem like a trivial difference, especially these days when other equally famous but less literary types (no names here) are likely to have someone 'ghostwrite' the work for them, but for Twain the choice to dictate was forced upon him by time obviously grown short.

The introduction to his work, which I have already skimmed, makes prominent note of the fact that Twain not only tried and failed to write his autobiography on several dozen occasions after the age of forty, he had almost abandoned the idea till late in his life. Closer to death, however, he knew it was something he had to do, even if it meant stepping outside his boundary as a writer and examining himself instead as a famous and not entirely righteous character.

The other reason I bought Twain's book first is because it is anything but new. In fact, it is a hundred years old, and this by design. Claiming quite rightly that he would be unable to write an accurate and unvarnished account of his life and relate his opinions of his contemporaries without fear of damaging or embarrassing those people, he insisted that the work remain unpublished for one hundred years after his death.

This has been, I think, a troubling issue for every would-be autobiographer (not just the famous--me included), but none has ever taken it seriously enough to actually do something about it. Only Twain, with his supreme self-confidence and even, dare I say it, arrogance about his own opinions would have had the sense to know it wouldn't really be a good book--or a best seller--for at least a century. In fact, like many other famous and now dead authors, his wishes were largely ignored, but the incompetence of those writers who chose to ignore his wishes made their works instantly obsolete, thankfully for those Twain fans lucky to be alive in 2010.

Of course, now I am judging the book in advance of actually reading it, but I wanted to make note of the fact that when it came to a choice of how to spend my $9.99 this week, I chose to put it in the pocket of a long-dead but still admired literary hero.

Next week I shall likely succumb to the curiosity that is contemporary 'history' (having read the biographies--auto or not--of all the presidents since Kennedy), but this week I'll be gaining energy and insight for my own work from the greatest of old masters with a real sense of history.

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