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Are All Biographies Flawed?

Following a conversation which I had with one of my thesis supervisors in November last year, I have been pondering about biographies.  I was advised not to include any of them in my research, as the supervisor in question is ‘not interested in what an author was like, but what they wrote’.  Fair enough, I suppose.

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From the Washington Independent Review of Books

However, my own personal stance on biographies is rather different to this.  I like to be acquainted with the work of a particular author or other historical figure before I read a biographical work about them, but I find that reading such tomes is central to my understanding of the world which they inhabited, and the influences which they had.

Whilst I’m not going to choose to eschew biographies in my reading life, it has led me to the following question – are all biographies flawed?  Is there really such thing as an impartial biography, or will there always be some sway by the author onto their chosen subject?  All thoughts on this, or on biographical writing in itself, are very welcome; I’d love to hear where you all stand.

5

Buying vs. Borrowing

I was prompted to make this post because my library’s rules about borrowing from other county branches has changed.  When I was young, I was a weekly borrower; I used to skip excitedly down to the library every Saturday with whichever parent was taking me, and max out my card.  I would then look forward to the next week, when I would have inevitably have read everything I had borrowed, and itching to discover something new.

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From the age of about nine onwards, my borrowing habits changed a little.  I was still an avid reader, but part of me wanted to add to my own library, as well as re-reading all of my mother’s old Enid Blytons and the like.  I read all the way through my teens, and would borrow the odd book from my school library, as well as squirrelling myself away in there every break and lunchtime and inhaling all of the stories I could.  I was still more of a buyer than a borrower, though.

When I started at University, I tended to buy all of my books.  Whilst I had access to quite a large library, it had zero fiction books upon its shelves. Zero.  I tended to purchase all of my books from Waterstone’s, charity shops and secondhand shops, of which the city I was in had many.  I also began to borrow the odd book from literary-minded friends.

As soon as I finished University, my book-buying became a little out of control.  I discovered both AwesomeBooks and AbeBooks at around this time, and marvelled at the fact that I could buy a book for around £2.49, including postage costs.  I did rejoin the library around a year later too, my card having expired due to lack of use, but found that I only picked up the odd volume here and there due to my local branch not having that much by way of stock.  I could request books from other branches, but a charge was put in place for every single one of these, and I deemed that actually, for me, it was better value to purchase my books so that I at least got to keep them afterwards.  There were also, of course, review copies, and I read a lot of free classics on my Kindle too.

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From 2015 onwards, however, my reading changed.  Early in the year, I found that my library system had stopped charging for reservations, which pleased me greatly.  Suddenly, new worlds were available to me, and I didn’t have to travel to Cambridge’s central branch to borrow Persephones and the like.  I certainly made the most of it, borrowing around 300 books from the start of 2015 to July 2016.  I also underwent a project to read every single one of the books on my TBR without buying any more, and despite having to pick up a couple of volumes here and there for my studies, or for my dissertation, I have pretty much made it to the end of the list.

Sadly, in June of this year, the library started to charge for its reservations again.  Even if I want to reserve a book from my local branch, there is a £1 charge, and when you are as avid a reader as me, this just seems like money which could be spent on my own books.  I understand that libraries are severely underfunded, and it’s an awful thing, but I am less likely to borrow books now, unless they are in my local branch and I can find them myself.

For a couple of months over this summer, then, I began to buy books again, both from the Internet and from Oxfam Bookshops (participating, as I was, in their Scorching Summer Reads initiative).  I will be joining three libraries when I relocate to Glasgow, so I imagine that my reading will go back to being largely a free endeavour again, but I will be living near an Oxfam Bookshop, and I probably will have to pop in from time to time…

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This has been rather a rambling post, in which I haven’t really come to any conclusions as to whether buying or borrowing books is better.  Let me address that now.  I love buying books, and whilst I purchase a lot less from full-price bookshops now (I am a student, after all!), I still love the thrill of finding something wonderful, especially if it’s an old or cheap edition (reiteration of the student thing…).  I also love borrowing, though; I am a big fan of selecting things from the library which I perhaps wouldn’t buy, but which sound interesting enough to take a chance on.  I don’t do this so much with books I read, as I like to be able to invest my money into something I know I will enjoy.  I also love supporting my local library as much as I can.

What are your thoughts on buying and borrowing?  Which do you prefer to do?  Which were the last books you bought, and the last books you borrowed?  How many libraries are you a member of, and what is your local library system like?