Writers: Their Lives and Works is a pretty ambitious project from DK. Not only because it features more than 100 biographies of some the world’s greatest writers, from Dante, Milton, and Voltaire, to Munro, Coetzee, and Murakami. But also because there is no way to put together a collection like this without pissing some people off.
For example, I read a negative review on Amazon from one person who called it “unforgivable” that J.D. Salinger didn’t get a spot: “The author of one of greatest novels ever written deserves to have a place among the great ones. There are many mediocre writers in this book whose position Salinger could have easily taken.”
So basically this book might disappoint you in some way. Particularly if you have a degree in English literature, in which case you’ll probably have more negative things to say than positive. But it’s pretty perfect for younger people or anyone looking to get an introduction to the world of literature. And to be honest, if you don’t take it as a definitive list and more of a suggested one, it’s pretty perfect for just about any reader.
Writers devotes one to two pages for each writer (although some, like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hemingway, get a few extra pages), with details of their lives and a timeline of their key works. There are photographs of first editions and of the writer’s homes and personal belongings. It’s like visiting a museum only you don’t have to leave your house and stand in line for admission with a bunch of tourists. In addition to the featured writers, each section has a directory of even more writers from that time period with a shorter write-up. My only gripe is that out of 109 main profiles, only 16 of them are women. Seems to me like that probably could have been higher. And I definitely would have given Sylvia Plath a little more real estate than this blurb in the directory. But that’s just me.
In addition to the writers I already knew a little something about, there were also many I had never heard of. Like Aphra Behn, an English writer from the 1600s who wrote plays but was also a government spy. And Machado de Assis, considered to be the greatest Brazilian novelist. But Writers also delivered some interesting tidbits about the authors I was familiar with. I learned about Vladimir Nabokov’s index card method of writing (which I might have to steal) and that Samuel Beckett almost died in Paris after being stabbed in the chest by a pimp for no apparent reason.
I was lucky enough to have both Writers and Remarkable Books (which I wrote about in this post) given to me by DK (thanks guys!). They are really killing it these days with their books on literature. Check out the DK website to see their latest releases.