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Covers courtesy of New York Review Books and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Covers courtesy of New York Review Books and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
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Non-Fiction in Brief: the First Modern Biographer's Biography, Shakespeare in East Africa, and a Renowned Editor's Memoir

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 2 September 2016
Reviews of the newly published John Aubrey: My Own Life by biographer Ruth Scurr, Shakespeare in Swahililand by scholar Edward Wilson-Lee, and Avid Reader by storied editor and writer Robert Gottlieb.

John Aubrey: 16th-Century Humanist and Biographer

John Aubrey
John Aubrey | ©Tom Reedy / Wikimedia Commons | Cover courtesy of New York Review Books

The reputation of English polymath John Aubrey (1626 –1697) sits on a mound of accomplishments. Proclaimed by the Guardian as “the father of English biography,” Aubrey is the author of the eternally curious Brief Lives, a collection of short, gossipy biographies on figures both luminary (Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne) and non (his neighbor and various socialites of his day). Aubrey got his start as a biographer when Thomas Hobbes asked him to pen his biography. His reputation exceeds the literary: an overgrown site at Stonehenge that he discovered is named in his honor and he donated various antiquarian knick-knacks and parchments to the Ashmolean, the world’s first university museum, in Oxford. Despite having people champion his work for the last four centuries, chances are you’ve never heard of him.

The award-winning biographer Ruth Scurr is the latest Aubrien to take up the challenge of bringing the antiquarian to a wider audience. Rather than pen the normal long-form history of Aubrey’s life and work, Scurr assembled letters, journals and manuscripts into a diary-like memoir written in Aubrey’s voice. The resulting work, John Aubrey, My Own Life, turns the notion of biography on its head, transforming a normally third person history into a lively first person account of seventeenth century Britain—an era when New World explorations collided with Old World beliefs, when apples were falling on Newton’s head, and axes were falling the heads of others. Take this entry written Scurr dates to October, 1668 (notice that she doesn’t give an exact date as she does for other entries. Scurr is a wonder at cloaking her scrupulous research):

“Mr Hobbes is disturbed because he has learnt that some of the bishops have moved in Parliament to have him burned as a heretic.”

Just as frightening to Aubrey is the poor state of Britain’s ancient sites—Roman and early Christian. He is a conservationist at heart, then known as an antiquary, but before the idea of large-scale conservation had become widespread:

“I went to the Monmouth Church today. There is a sash window with a very old escutcheon, as old as the church… The window was hanging a little dangerously. I fear it will fall and be spoiled.”

Scurr is doesn’t let slip any detail of Aubrey’s life, and even the most mundane facts make it into her book. The entry for June 1868: “An abscess on my head broke.” These tidbits can be a bit trifling, but also reduce any mystique that some biographers engender in their subjects. By the same token, Scurr enkindles our sense of Aubrey’s insatiable curiosity: he observes a demonstration for a “new wind gun” and talks late into the night with a friend on the mechanics of human flight. Out and about in the countryside, Aubrey documents everything—the landscape and the places and people that dot it. He interviews Shakespeare’s boyhood neighbors who tell him that when the young bard, the son of a butcher, killed a calf, he would “doe it in high style, and make a speech.” A later work on magic spells includes a pediatric cure for thrush that prescribes placing a frog in a child’s mouth until it, so to speak, croaked.

It can be a bit much to get into the head of a 17th century renaissance man, but Scurr’s knits the threads of Aubrey’s own words with a sure hand, modernizing both a classical biographer and the classical notions of biography. While it may not popularize Aubrey to the masses, My Own Life will likely cement his reputation, and Scurr’s, among the literary elite.

Shakespeare in Swahililand

Shakespeare in Swahililand, UK cover | courtesy of HarperCollins
Shakespeare in Swahililand, UK cover | courtesy of HarperCollins

Two hundred years after Aubrey visited Shakespeare’s neighbors, Shakespeare’s plays arrived in Africa. According to Edward Wilson-Lee, author of the engrossing Shakespeare in Swahililand, the works of the bard were introduced to the continent in the late 1850s, carried in travel editions by early British explorers John Hanning Speke and Richard Francis Burton (Burton in his spare time made “pencil corrections to Shakespeare’s lines where he felt he could do better.”) Within a decade, a missionary to Zanzibar named Edward Steere had translated into Swahili four Shakespeare plays, selected from a Shakespeare children’s edition, titling it Hadithi za Kiingereza (English Stories). Steere bound all books by hand, giving them to liberated slave boys who were soon performing plays aboard British vessels docked at port.

Wilson-Lee, who spent his childhood in Kenya as the son of wildlife conservationists, enlivens the unexpected history of bardolatry in the African continent by documenting his research in East Africa. In Zanzibar he is at first stymied by bumbling bureaucrats before finding better success with a local whom he recalls memorized Julius Caesar in its entirety: “It’s is rather poignant to think that Steere’s island would one day be populated by boys fluent in iambic pentameter.”

He is deft at describing a uniquely African Shakespeare—of characters given a much greater role (Rosalind), killed off (Brutus), or simply omitted (Caliban). Rather than wince at these incidents, Wilson-Lee delights in them: “their confident act of taking over a foreign culture was very much like Shakespeare’s own.” Through these appropriations, Shakespeare in Swahililand subtly imports cultural inquiry into a more intriguing critique. A rather poignant examination that Wilson-Lee follows is the confiscation of Shakespeare by Africans in power, such as the Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie or Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s notorious first post-colonial leader, who translated the bard in his spare time.

But while all this history is fascinating, it’s Wilson-Lee’s conclusion—the African Shakespeare is now being embraced back in his home country—that’s especially compelling. UNESCO now hosts an international Shakespeare festival at the Globe, which in 2012 included the South Sudan Theater Company’s lauded production of Cymbeline, one replete with pelt clothing costumes, dance choreography and Juba Arabic street-slang. “The Shakespeare made in Africa has come to replace the one that was taken there,” writes Wilson-Lee. “It is a strange and beautiful renewal: [Shakespeare] is much better for it.” By the end of Shakespeare in Swahililand, any of its reader will have the same conviction.

Avid Reader: Memoir of a New York City Editor

Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb | Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb | Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“I would begin as I would go on—reading.” This is the opening sentence of Avid Reader, the memoir of editor and writer Robert Gottlieb. One of the most storied editors in New York publishing, Gottlieb gives a glorious and insightful account of a life lived not so much in letters but behind them, as the editor-in-chief of two publishing houses and, for a short period, the venerated New Yorker. Gottlieb, a Manhattan native, is whisked into publishing in his mid-20s, when he started as editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster, where his first tasks were writing captions and clearing permissions for dusty titles such as The Jerome Kern Song Book and The Ladies’ Home Treasury Journal. Gottlieb’s account of his time there is vivacious: working at Simon & Schuster, it seemed, was like attending a cocktail party in the Wild West, where authors were hounded by the FDA for product pushing or yelling raunchy expletives at their own book launches. It is here that he finds his first major break when he signs on World War II veteran Joseph Heller for his debut novel Catch-22. “I tore into it…” writes Gottlieb, “I had no notion that what I was dealing with would turn out to be sacred text.” Standing in opposition to Heller’s success was the tragedy of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, to which Gottlieb, who eventually rejected the manuscript after Toole refused to revise it, cites the conflict as a “most conspicuous failure.” Fifty years on, however, Gottlieb still holds his opinion that the A Confederacy of Dunces needs work.

Gottlieb is honest about his friends, authors, and colleagues, put prefers to commend rather than cut (though he gets a few digs in). His command of prose exemplifies exactly how well of an editor he must be—firm, but justifiable, and ultimately fair. Of Michael Crichton, whom he says “wasn’t a very good writer”, he concedes “[Michael] couldn’t write about people because he simply wasn’t interested in them.” There are some self-congratulatory moments, on John Cheever: “It occurred to me that it was time to gather the best of his short stories… John couldn’t see why I would do such a thing… no one had bought any of them… Decades later, we can see how it’s publication confirmed Cheever’s place as one of America’s finest writers of fiction in the twentieth century.” A better assessment of the editor-writer balance is his relationship with Toni Morrison, herself a one-time editor at Random House: “We were made for each other… our only real disagreements have to do with commas…” Gottlieb doesn’t edit Morrison so much as advise her, as when he suggests she take a section from a book she is working on and publish it as a separate novel — Beloved. Their professional relationship remains healthy to this day.

Perhaps most stirring is his account of taking over the New Yorker from its famed editor Wallace Shawn. Gottlieb’s new role was infamously met with condemnation and a letter signed by the staff pleading him not to take the job. Gottlieb brushes off the incident “I had forgotten The Letter a week after my arrival.” Shawn, for his part, takes a desk a block away should Si Newhouse, the magazine’s owner, need to fire Gottlieb and summon its former editor back. Gottlieb seemed pepped to be there, but also in over his head. He isn’t ashamed to admit that “my first priority… was to understand how things worked.” He practically goes around the office on the page, giving praise to everyone from Shawn to the magazine’s deaf copyeditor. Along the way, he makes arguably his greatest hire, the magazine’s current editor David Remnick. Gottlieb adroitly recognizes this, and also his inadequacy, when Newhouse calls him in after five years to fire him, it’s a relatively calm affair. He is given a massive severance and is soon welcomed back to Knopf.

Only 40 pages of Avid Reader are given over to Gottlieb’s other interests. He dedicates a brisk chapter to modern dance (he was the long-time dance critic for the New York Observer), while another, titled “Writing”, barely passes fifteen pages (his chapter on Knopf, by comparison, runs just shy of a hundred). But what gives this memoir delight isn’t Gottlieb’s list of accomplishments, but the joy of what these accomplishments have been—literary ones. And as he goes on as he always has, reading, so too does it feel like we are reading alongside with and thanks to him.


My Own Life

by Ruth Scurr

New York Review Books (US) | Chatto & Windus (UK)

544 pp. | $28 | £19.99


Adventures of the Ever-living Poet

by Edward Wilson-Lee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US) | William Collins (UK)

304 pp. | $26 | 320 pp. | £20


A Life

by Robert Gottlieb

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

352 pp. | $28