Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Art of Biography, the Art of the Quote

A few days ago I started reading Eric Metaxas' biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's been on my reading list for months, but I purposefully held off until January because I knew I would need to a book like this to fall into during the hardest, cold days of winter.

And I knew I would "fall into" this book. At least I would if it was anything like my experience with Metaxas' other well-known biography of William Wilberforce, a book I almost literally couldn't put down.

Good biographies, the kind that make you feel as though you've been in the subject's company, are some of my favorite reads. Metaxas seems to have mastered the art of telling a life in a way that's colorful, compelling and thoughtful. As I read Bonhoeffer, I keep trying to put my finger on what exactly makes up the art of good biography. I'm still working that out in my mind. But one thing that struck me yesterday was that a masterful biographer knows the value and artistry of a good quote.

A "good quote" can have different types of qualities (or a mixture): one that shows depth of research, one that feels particularly well-placed within the narrative, one that reveals something you never knew or stopped to consider about the subject, or one that looks small and commonplace on the surface but in consideration of the whole of the subject's life, offers a poignant phrase or line that feels weighted with more meaning that its original intentions.

That last jumped out at me yesterday as I was reading about the Bonhoeffer family's great love of music, and how the young Bonhoeffer had a real genius for music. Metaxas cited a quote from Dietrich's twin sister Sabine to make note that he was an "especially sensitive and generous" accompanist. And then he quoted Dietrich's future sister-in-law:

"While we were playing, Dietrich at the piano kept us all in order. I do not remember a moment when he did not know where each of us was. He never just played his own part: from the beginning he heard the whole of it. If the cello took a long time tuning beforehand, or between movements, he sank his head and didn't betray the slightest impatience. He was courteous by nature."

"He never just played his own part: from the beginning he heard the whole of it." A line that makes beautiful sense in context -- can't you just picture the young blond-haired man at the piano, keeping time, patiently observing and waiting for the others, helping them all to pull their music making into coherence and beauty? The whole vignette wonderfully captures something essential about Bonhoeffer's personality, something people never forgot. But that one line also seems to ring with deeper resonance when you consider Bonhoeffer's life as a whole.

And maybe that vignette offers a good analogy for what a biographer, at his best, does: he listens to snippets of music, played at or sung about a person's life, from very different places and voices. And he brings them all together into a harmonious whole that helps you to not only appreciate the snippets, but the entire composition of someone's life.


Erin said...

A wonderful way to put it! It really takes a special skill to write a truly compelling biography that really captures the essence of someone's life.

I first became acquainted with Bonhoeffer in fifth grade, I think it was, when I had to do a report on a historical figure and Dad suggested him. Fascinating fellow!

I've got quotes on my mind today too, since I just reviewed a gift book featuring quotes by and about Jim Henson. You read that and you just can't help feeling a little better about the world...

Beth said...

Wow, a report on Bonhoeffer in 5th grade! That's ambitious (and very cool of your dad to recommend him...) Any chance you still have that report lying around anywhere? Would love to read it!

Quotes can be such a wonderful gift -- both woven into longer narratives and on their own. I'll have to read your Henson review...we've been doing a lot of Muppets around here this winter.