Read This: Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare

shakespeare.jpgBecause of my busy schedule these days, I end up reading a lot of books piecemeal—a few chapters one day, a few more a couple weeks later—and that’s how I’m getting through the latest biography by one of my favorite writers, Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare. I was lucky enough to get to hear Ackroyd speak a few months back, at a Sunday brunch lecture sponsored by the 92nd St. Y, where he discussed the challenges in writing yet another biography about someone who, it seems, has a book published about him every single day…but also about the challenges of biography itself. “In fiction,” Ackroyd observed, “you must always tell the truth, but in biography you’re allowed to make things up.” This was well before the whole James Frey thing, mind you; what Ackroyd was talking about was the way in which the genre relies equally upon imaginative reconstruction and scholarship to give a sense of a life. “What is the point of the historian or the biographer,” he wondered, “if we can’t use imagination as a source for inspiration?”

During the question period, I asked him if he felt any difference between writing the big biographies like Shakespeare and the recent series of “brief lives” he’s developed about subjects like Chaucer and J.M.W. Turner. “It doesn’t make any difference as far as I can tell,” he smiled. “The vision has to be approximately the same.” And it is, I have to confess, a vision I’m usually willing to follow in just about any direction.

4 March 2006 | read this |