When, some years ago, I ruthlessly culled my library down from several thousand books to a few hundred, a surprising number of biographies made the cut. My principle of selection was, ‘Will I ever need to read or refer to this book again or do I have a particular affection for it?’ The cliché that a person’s library directly reflects their tastes and interests and even their character is certainly true in my case.
Biography is one of my favourite kinds of reading. It’s a way of getting to know people more interesting than many of those you’re likely to meet in real life. Writers dominate my collection: I have three biographies of Raymond Chandler, two of Dashiel Hammett and singles of James M Cain and Jim Thompson. No surprises there.
Moving up-market, I own biographies of Daniel Defoe, Somerset Maugham, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Rimbaud and Patrick White. These are writers I admire – White with severe reservations.
The rest is a random selection: explorer, linguist and eroticist Sir Richard Burton; sports figures Jack Dempsey and Les Darcy (two of the latter), Jack Kramer and Andre Agassi; a twilight man – Kim Philby, and the two-volume work on the equal greatest (with Frank Sinatra) popular singer of the 20th century, Elvis Presley.
And of course I kept 15 volumes of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, where, when my eyesight was better, I used to browse, contentedly checking out the heroes and villains.
All this neatly enough reflects my tastes and interests. Whether it reflects my character others would have to judge, but it certainly reflects my ambitions. I wanted to be a good boxer and tennis player. I didn’t succeed but I did enough to have an inkling of what sporting success might feel like.
More importantly, I wanted a life quite different from that of my parents, more like those of Hammett and company – uncircumscribed by rules and institutions. In the still wild Solomon Islands in 1968 I had my (albeit much tamer) Burton and Rimbaud moments. And quite early on, I wanted to be a writer.
The books reflect another ambition never achieved. I would like to have written a full-scale biography of a person who interested me and, since publishers would not otherwise pay a good advance, would interest readers. I never found the right subject. I’ve worked with several powerful characters to produce ‘as-told-to’ autobiographies but that, although it comes close in some respects, is not the same thing.
I wrote biographical introductions to two books I edited, journals of men involved in the Pacific Islands labour trade, and a handful of entries in the ADB. This gave me the taste for biographical writing but not the full experience.
Too late now. I don’t have the energy or eyesight to tackle a major research and writing task. Anyway, my requirement for a subject would be someone I admired and who led an active, not just a cerebral, life. Looking around, it’s hard to spot a candidate.