A reader writes:
I was disappointed, to say the least, when I read a while back that the
title of your new book would be Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis
Armstrong. Why, you say? Do I hate subtitles? Do I hate Louis
No, it’s because you’re using that ridiculous phrase A Life of —–. When I first saw that in a subtitle a few years ago, in
something like (to make up a book), America’s Poet: A Life of Robert
Frost, I immediately thought, what a silly use of language–did the
man have several lives? No, he had one. Someone’s writing about it,
therefore it should be The Life of Robert Frost.
Now, Armstrong may have done enough with his to fill up two or three
normal lives, but he, too, had only one. So I say it should be Hotter
Than That: The Life of Louis Armstrong.
And yes, I think I know how it must have started. When my make-believe
Frost book was submitted to its editor, he, in a fit of political
correctness, said, “Oh, we can’t use that title. ‘Life’ means biography
in the literary world. Someone might think we’re saying that this book
is the biography of Frost–the one, the only, the best. No, no, no, we
can’t do that, it might hurt someone’s feelings.” And silliness won
another small victory.
I know that it’s currently a popular way to phrase it, but that doesn’t
make it right (and thank God, many authors are still using The Life of —–, for example, John Szwed’s excellent So What: The Life
of Miles Davis). “Life,” in the title of a biography, means just that,
someone’s life, the time they spent on earth. It doesn’t mean
“biography,” at least not in the real world.
So I’m begging you, man, change it back to the phrase that’s worked
fine for hundreds of years–it’s not too late! Strike a blow for
Alas, my subtitle has what I regard as an impeccable and dispositive precedent, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, written by yours truly. I explained in the preface why I gave it that name: “This is a life of Mencken, not the life. I have made no attempt to be exhaustive, so as to avoid being exhausting.” As you see, it had nothing to do with political correctness (don’t make me laugh!). I simply felt–and feel–that every biography is by definition one person’s interpretation of another person’s life, a selection from and arrangement of the available facts, and that since multiple interpretations of the same facts are not only possible but inevitable, the title should indicate as much.
As for the larger question of the meaning of “life,” The New Shorter Oxford defines it as, among other things, “A written account of a person’s history; a biography.” That usage dates back to Middle English.
Here endeth the lesson. (Nice try, though.)