A meta-note on reading biographies — April 19, 2016

A meta-note on reading biographies

I’m reading a very, very, very good biography of Atatürk by Lord Kinross, which I’ll review when I’m finished. But a point about biographies in general occurs to me: you’d never really expect a biographer to have a negative or indifferent viewpoint toward his subject; you’d never expect the Kinross biography to be called Atatürk: the Grotesque Mediocrity.

So then maybe the best way to approach a subject like Atatürk is indirectly, via books in which he isn’t the main actor. You’ll get less detail about your specific subject that way, so you’ll need to read more books than just a single biography; for instance, Atatürk appears in Paris 1919 as just one of the figures — albeit a very significant one — controlling events while the allies grind through negotiations.

This approach will only get you so far: if you want to read about the creation of the modern Turkish state, about Kemalism, etc., it’s hard to think of an indirect way to achieve that. A book about the Ottoman empire, such as Caroline Finkel’s, will only touch on Atatürk at the end, and only up to the point when the sultanate disappears. Maybe there are books about Central Asia that I’ve not read, which treat Turkey as an important actor but not the only one. Or maybe I should read books about modern Greece? The Greeks surely don’t feel positively toward Atatürk.

Does this indirect approach seem correct to others? If so, is there some systematic way to apply it to any given subject?