Books: Raw Bones, Fire and Patience

Talented new biographers are moving beyond scholarship

A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one," observed Thomas Carlyle more than a century ago. The well-spent ones are still as scarce as first editions. But, thanks to a number of gifted and imaginative biographers, well-written lives are now a lot easier to find.

In the past few years, oversize, prize-winning stories of figures as varied as Somerset Maugham and Theodore Roosevelt, Isak Dinesen and Lyndon Johnson have sold briskly and drawn critical raves. The volumes have rescued the genre from charges that...

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