BOOKS: the plague of boring biography titles continues

A well-reviewed biography on artist Amadeo Modigliani written by seasoned biographer Meryle Secrest came out earlier this month. Modigliani: A Life dutifully chronicles the artist’s notoriously tumultuous life, one fraught with poverty and bouts of alcoholism and drug-addiction that quickly worsened his struggle with tubercular meningitis. Of course, none of this drama is relayed in the title, nor is there any evidence of the artist’s misfortunes or madness in the cover, which shows a young Modigliani in a polo and V-neck sweater, looking ready to teach high school economics. There exist several other biographies on the late artist. In fact, five years before Secrest’s Modigliani: A Life was published, Jeffrey Myers wrote the biography Modigliani: A Life.

Secrest has written ten other biographies. There’s Steven Sondheim: A Life and Duveen: A Life in Art (a bit of a change-up there), as well as four others subtitled :A Biography. While biographers need not strive for outlandish titles just to buck convention, I do believe a break in the monotony of :A Life‘s and :A Biography‘s is called for. The list of celebrated figures who’s stories have been summed up by the sweeping, all-encompassing subtitle :A Life is dismayingly long and includes Elia Kazan, Samuel Adams, Cleopatra, Paul McCartney, George Washington, Paul Simon and recently, J.D. Salinger. Surely Salinger, who defied biographers and boarded himself up against fans throughout his entire life deserves some uniqueness?

Of course, those biographers who took the road less traveled haven’t necessarily landed on their feet. Titles like Why Me?, or Dare to Dream!, or the overly descriptive The Everyday Life of Abraham Lincoln: A Narrative and Descriptive Biography with Pen-Pictures and Personal Recollections By Those Who Knew Him are enough to make any biographer choose the well-trodden path.

Modigliani: A Life is still a good biography, one that deserves to be read, title choice aside. And even though we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (a saying I’m  going to add “or title” to), would it kill biographers to extend some of their dedication to researching and writing to the big words printed on the cover?