Plutarch's Lives

Dear H-,

Nobody needs to read 800 pages on anybody.  This is the conclusion I've come to after reading Alexander Hamilton and the first volume of The Last Lion.  They're simply too large to be useful.  Do I need to know, in the space of 200 pages, how Winston felt about his mother, or about how poorly he behaved in school, or how badly he wrote in first grade?  Yes -- maybe in 200 words.  In a good study Bible Jesus gets around 300 pages, about half of them are notes, and another quarter, maybe more, is repetitive.  Yet according to the Christians, God decided that was all we needed on Him.

The fact the we remember so little about these biographies is a result, I believe, of their size.  Plutarch's Lives run anywhere from 30-50 pages and what we take away from them is far more useful.  The Penguin translations in particular.  We get a short childhood, a slew of great quips, some moral triumphs and failures, some background history, a solid battle or two, and then somebody dies.  Thomas Babington Macaulay's bios run anywhere from 50-80 pages, are packed full of instruction, and die off before we feel any of our time is wasted.  What about biographies on Macaulay?  Not written by Macaulay, and thus by a slew of inferior minds -- thus hundreds of pages long.  Will anybody read them?  Despite an almost fanatical love for the man, I'll almost certainly be missing it.

Your father,

Like these essays?  Don't trust Zuckerberg?  Email me at and start your subscription today.