Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Reader's Diary #289- Eknath Easwaran: Gandhi The Man (FINISHED)

The best biography I've ever read (and you should keep in mind that I haven't read many) was Jon Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. This is not a matter of relating more to one man than the other, or supporting either's ideals; it's just that Anderson's book was what I look for in a biography: a (relatively) objective book that looks at many facets of a life and let's me decide on how I interpret that information.

At only 200 pages to Anderson's 832 pages, Easwaran's book is less intimidating. But, when you consider the impact both of these individuals in history, the trade off with a short Gandhi book is obvious: an insufficient picture.

It is very clear that Eknath Easwaran is a fan of Gandhi, and that's okay. I don't think a biographer needs to be totally detached from his subject. However, he should have let me come to the conclusion of Gandhi's greatness on my own rather than be expected to simply take his word for it. On several ocassions, references are made to his opponents (ex. "How did he become a magnetic leader whom even his avowed opponents could not resist?") Yet- and this was the most frustrating aspect of all- he skimped on why he had opponents and detractors in the first place. In some cases it was easy to read between the lines and guess why some people would hold negative opinions, but I don't see why there should be any guess work.

And it wasn't just the negative details that Easwaran left out. Sometimes he oversimplified events, leaving the impression that Gandhi's accomplishments came easy and/or purely as a result of his actions, ignoring other factors which may have played a part. Read the comments one reader left in my previous post to see what I mean.

Finally, the appendix left a bad taste in my mouth. Written by Timothy Flinders, this part is entitled "How Nonviolence Works" and is an explanation of how satyagraha "can be applied to contemporary problems." It is fair enough to say that this is an appendix and as such should probably be considered optional. Still, I don't remember any "how to be a communist" sections at the back of the Che Guevara book.

Even as an introduction to Gandhi, I still feel that this book came up short. Instead it smacks of propaganda. Compared to the other aforementioned biography, I guess that's a bit ironic.

Keeping on the themes of biographies, any favourites?


Rob Hardy said...

My favorite recent biographies are Ron Powers' Mark Twain: A Life and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But setting aside my American bias, I can recommend the classic biography of St. Augustine, Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967). My favorite non-American autobiography is the classic World War I memoir, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.

Stephanie said...

Keeping objectivity is tough for a lot of biographers. I've read a bunch of books on the Kennedy's. (kind of a passion I had a while back). Most that I read were really unobjective, depending on the author. You could tell who was for and who was against!!

I definitely need to add the Che Guevara book to my list though. I've been wanting to read it for a long time!

Dewey said...

Yeah, I think that the information Satish gave you seems like it would be essential to the book.

Some interesting biographies I've read recently: Mockingbird, the bio of Harper Lee and Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I have read very few biographies, sadly, but I sure would read have an appendix called "how to be a communist".

The author of this Gandhi biography sounds a bit lazy in his approach, frankly.

John Mutford said...

Rob: Those all sound great actually. I think I'd pick the Abe Lincoln book first, but- and I don't know if this is a symptom of living in Canada or not- I always feel like a traitor when I learn about American history!

Stephanie: The Che book as I said was very long, but also very thorough and one of the most balanced biographies out there. To start though, have you seen "The Motorcycle Diaries"? I've been wanting to go to South America ever since.

Dewey: I still haven't read To Kill A Mockingbird so I'd probably start with that before the biography.

Barbara: I did recently read The Communist Manifesto.