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Biography for beginners: being a collection…
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Biography for beginners: being a collection of miscellaneous examples for… (1905)

by E. Clerihew Bentley

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Although this short book has been around for a long time, it is now being republished by Dover Publications. It consists of "biographies" of persons written in four lines of rhyming verse. The biographies generally focus on only one thing about each person. The illustrations are drawings done by G. K. Chesterton. Some of the rhymes are better than others. Some of the persons included are not likely to be recognized by a 21st century audience. The premise of the book is entertaining, and I'm certain that the audience at the time it was written laughed out loud at many of the rhymes. This review is based on an advance review copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley with the expectation that a review be written. ( )
  thornton37814 | Jun 4, 2014 |
Possibly the easiest book to read, Biography for Beginners consists of a four line ditty describing the identifying bent of some famous man, plus a caricature by GK Chesterton, illustrating that trait. It is whimsical but accurate, in the nature of better political cartoons. The subjects tend to be names from pop culture and British history, so many will not be recognized, particularly by Americans. But the British are just as dismissive of what preceded their own self importance, and will puzzle over many. Nonetheless, the book gets republished again and again, and we are rapidly approaching its hundredth anniversary.

At the back, the author divides the biographies by adjective, listing the men by the words that describe them. Of note is Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s, who appears 24 times. Not bad for a four line description. Apparently Mr. Bentley had an issue with Wren. Or Wren was an outsized brigand – I mean character. Or both.

The whole exercise reminds me of Félix Fénéon, a newspaper editor who wrote entire stories in three lines, about two decades before Bentley’s book. The English translation/collection is called Novels in Three Lines. His stories are so elegant, I am delighted Bentley followed up in English.

David Wineberg ( )
  DavidWineberg | May 15, 2014 |
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