Jack London: An American Life
By Earle Labor; Read by Michael Prichard
16 hours 50 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Themes: / biography / writing / politics / literature
As Earle Labor notes in his preface to this comprehensive biography, Jack London is a man who, nearly a century after his death, still looms large in the American imagination. Labor seeks to illuminate, or in some cases even dispel, some of the myths surrounding this literary genius (e.g. London was an alcoholic, London was a badass, London committed suicide). Labor also sets himself the task of reconciling London the rugged individualist with London the ardent socialist. With these lofty aims set forth, Jack London: An American Life might have become a programmatic attack, or defense, of London’s life and work. But this book is biography at its best: rich in its description and reliant on primary sources whenever possible not only to dole out facts but to lend an air of local color. The subtitle An American Life is thus appropriate, since the reader is treated to a glimpse into not just the life of Jack London, but into the America (parts of it, at any rate) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Unlike some modern biographies that attempt literary flourishes by beginning in medias res and then backtracking, or otherwise play with chronology or other tropes to heighten the narrative power, Labor’s work doesn’t pull any punches. It is a biography from start to finish, and only delves beyond London’s birth in an effort to shed some light on his less-than-Rockwellian parentage and upbringing. The biography then marches chronologically right up until the days of London’s final illness and death–which at only age 40 came much too soon. While at points this made for tedious reading–I felt I was stuck in the South Sea doldrums right along with London and crew–it left me with a sense of completion lacking in shorter or less thorough biographies. I really feel like I know London’s story from cradle to grave. Though not written for a scholarly audience by any means, the tight focus on London’s immediate life and surrounding does mean the reader should have some knowledge of turn-of-the-century world events. Labor does not deviate from the story, for example, to explain the origins of the Russo-Japanese War or the Mexican Revolution, which both figure into London’s life as a reporter.
This work might just as easily have been subtitled “American Lives”, since Jack London was not only a journalist but also an oyster pirate, a gold miner, a hobo, a convict, a captain, and a rancher, not to mention world-class writer. And Jack London is a prime specimen of the adage “write what you know.” After his time as a gold miner in the Great White North, he cranked out Klondike stories; after his stint reporting boxing matches, he tried his hand at writing a story about a prize match; and during his cruise in the Pacific, he wrote moving pieces about Hawaii and the South Sea, most notably Ko’olau the Leper. As a reader fascinated with wordcraft and the writing process, I found Labor’s observations on London’s writing life particularly insightful. Sadly (for me, at any rate), any sort of deeper criticism (in the scholarly sense of the word) of London’s writings or their far-reaching influence is beyond the scope of this biography. We do not learn whether Ernest Hemingway read London’s anti-bullfighting story The Madness of John Harned, for instance, nor do we discover whether his socialist writings had any impact during the Red Scare not long after his death. The lack of these literary insights isn’t so much a problem with the book as it is a casualty of its tight biographical focus. Most casual readers who don’t go in for literary trivia will probably actually be grateful for its absence.
What makes Jack London: An American Life such a joy to read is its frequent inclusion of source material, much of it written either by London himself or by his precocious and stalwart second wife Charmian. Labor weaves these glittering strands into the narrative’s tapestry so seamlessly that, at least to the audiobook listener, it’s occasionally difficult to ascertain where London’s words leave off and Labor’s prose picks up again. This is partly due to Labor’s own skill as a writer in his own right, and perhaps some of the literary prowess of his subject rubbed off on him as well. The strength of the biography’s prose easily buoys the text along through the book’s occasional slow spot. Michael Prichard’s narration complements the text well, and his accentuation and intonation of quoted text helps mitigate the aforementioned problem of distinguishing quoted material from Labor’s own pen. The few “mistakes” I noticed in the narration are more a matter of usage or stylistic debate than actual shortcomings. Overall, the audio presentation never detracted from, and in some ways added to, the power of the written work.
As I hinted earlier, the only real problem with Jack London: An American Life is that there isn’t enough of it. Earle Labor, curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana, clearly has a lot to say about London, and in fact has written other works about the literary giant. As with any great biography, this book is a springboard inviting readers to further exploration, which in this case means, above all, reading Jack London’s own work. Through his own powerful words, and through the able stewardship of scholars like Labor, Jack London continues to blaze a literary trail almost a hundred years after his passing.
An NPR piece on this new biography features not only snippets of an interview with Earle Labor, but also a wax cylinder recording of Jack London himself.
Posted by Seth Wilson
The SFFaudio Podcast #248 – Goliah by Jack London; read by Gregg Margarite. This is a complete and unabridged reading of the short story (57 minutes) followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse, Bryan Alexander, Seth, and Maissa Bessada
Talked about on today’s show:
Colossus: The Forbin Project; title’s reference to biblical Goliath; story’s title a reference to the famous Pacific steam ship; colonial capitalism; the story’s Gilded Age context; child labor; Eugene Debs and American socialism; Karl Marx; Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan; the story’s fictional energon evocative of Transformers energon; Nikola Tesla; Goliah has a palantir; Goliah as Santa Claus; the story’s invented island Palgrave in the South Sea; parallels to London’s other speculative fiction including The Iron Heel; the story’s unreliable narrator; Asgard; origin stories and foundation myths; nineteenth-century racism rears its ugly head again; Übermenschen; contempt for military and militarism; The Unparalleled Invasion; Seth works too hard; the theoretical increase of productivity through automation; 1984; Twilight casting a sparkly shadow over modern culture; Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward as a possible influence; Karl Marx’s German Ideology; the importance of laughter; Herland; the story as a response to nihilism; similarities between Guy de Maupassant and Friedrich Nietzsche; The Scarlet Plague; Canticle for Leibowitz; the medieval investiture controversy; animal metaphors in Goliah; accurate predictions of World War I; structural similarity to the Book of Job; “you don’t get a lot of laughter in the Old Testament”; Arslan by M.J. Engh; The Bookman literary magazine; It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby; steampunk by tag cloud; we make a dismal attempt at discussing the Stock Market; the dark underbelly of Goliah’s utopia; the unrealistic perpetuation of a utopia; Autofac and Pay for the Printer by Philip K. Dick; With Folded Hands by Jack Williamson; Star Trek: The Next Generation; Lenin’s dying wish; Jules Verne; Goliah relinquishing power; Hot Fuzz; more on the palantir and the NSA; “grumblers grumble”; attitudes toward the criminally insane; “Goliah has spoken”; nukes not MOOCs; Cuban Missile Crisis; Douglas MacArthur biography American Caesar by William Manchester; Doctor Who episode “The Happiness Patrol”; Japanese Manga Death Note; the “bread and roses” U.S. labor strike contemporary with Jack London; the Pax Romana; The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker, a discourse on lethal violence; the Franco-Prussian War; Earle Labor’s Jack London: An American Life available in audio.
Posted by Jesse Willis
C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius and Reluctant Prophet
By Alister E. McGrath; Read by Robin Sachs
13 hours 56 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Oasis Audio
Themes: / biography / religion / fantasy / medieval literature
Before setting out on this review, I must apologize for the liberal use of the first-person pronoun, which I normally use sparingly. This book intersects my personal and professional interests at several points, so I’m not even going to attempt an objective, impartial review, if such a thing is even possible. I am, as Lewis was, a student of medieval literature, though I can only dream of reaching his depth of knowledge and scope of imagination in this field. Furthermore, I undertook part of my studies at Oxford University, which was home to Lewis for much of his life. The City of Dreaming Spires, as Matthew Arnold called it, exerted a profound influence on Lewis’s life and work, and having walked its winding cobbled streets and ancient quadrangles it’s easy to understand why. Last, but certainly not least, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia had a profound impact on my intellectual and imaginative development as a child. In this I suspect I’m not alone, and I hope this review will encourage readers to learn more about the life and mind behind one of the wellsprings of modern fantasy.
Before discussing the biography itself, I should say something of its author. Though currently Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, McGrath’s previous post was in Oxford, where I had heard his name spoken with a great deal of respect while I was there. The biography lists ever so slightly in the direction of Christianity, reflecting its author’s background in theology and apologetics, but on the whole it’s a balanced work firmly grounded in scholarly research of Lewis’s works and correspondence. The biography, of course, deals extensively with Lewis’s religious and spiritual development so central in his life and work, but the work by no means white-washes Lewis’s life or even his faith. This audio recording is preceded by an interview with McGrath, whose calm, measured voice assures us as listeners that we’re chosen a trustworthy guide down the path of Lewis’s life.
Like most biographers, McGrath takes a strictly chronological approach, with very few detours either to backtrack or to foreshadow. The narrative takes us through Lewis’s birth and childhood in Northern Ireland, through his lengthy tenure at Osxford University, to his final years as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. The biography strikes a delicate balance between Lewis’s rich inner life as reflected in his writings and his sometimes tumultuous outer. In the former case, McGrath devotes considerable space to Lewis’s conversion experience and subsequent development of his spirituality. As an academic, I was also pleased that Lewis’s scholarly works, notably on Edmund Spender’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost, receive some attention. In regards to Lewis’s personal life, the biography charts Lewis’s many professional disappointments resulting from his popular religious work and the rift that formed between Lewis and other Oxford academics. Lewis’s relationships also receive some attention, in particular his long-running peculiar arrangement with the older Mrs. Moore and his controversial marriage to Joy Davidman. Of course, there is significant interplay between Lewis’s inner and outer lives, and McGrath expertly weaves these strands together to illustrate how one sometimes influenced the other. The book concludes by reflecting on the rise of Lewis’s reputation in various circles, religious and popular, after his death in 1963.
Two whole chapters are dedicated to Lewis’s development of The Chronicles of Narnia. McGrath packs a lot of material into these relatively few pages, from Narnia’s inception in Lewis’s mind, to the debate over the proper reading order of the books (Lewis’s ordering, order of publication, or internal chronology), to the works’ modern reception, especially Philip Pullman’s criticism. This section also manages to delve a little deeper, too, highlighting the philosophical and theological underpinnings of this imaginative, not imaginary, world. McGrath deals with the question of whether Narnia is an allegory, and also links the work to Plato’s Republic and the allegory of shadows in the cave. Obviously this is a lot of topics to cram into so little space, and I would have liked a more thorough treatment, but to be fair this is a biography, not a work of literary criticism. McGrath has promised a fuller, more scholarly edition of this book in the near future, which will likely feature copious footnotes providing a wonderful paper trail for the Narnia enthusiast eager to learn more. SFFaudio readers should also note that Lewis’s lesser-known Space Trilogy also receives brief treatment in this biography.
Though built on academic bedrock, C.S. Lewis: A Life is written in a lively, accessible style. McGrath uses Lewis’s own words, or the words of his associates, when possible, which imbues the book with a sense of immediacy and authenticity to the work. I sometimes felt as though I were in the room with Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings as they discussed important religious, mythological, and literary matters. Like Lewis himself, McGrath also has a way of explaining complex intellectual and theological matters in a way that an average reader like me can understand. This is, in my view, the hallmark of any solid intellectual or literary biography. My only criticism of the book, and it’s a trifling one, is that McGrath hardly even alludes to any sexual relations between Lewis and Mrs. Moore, or later between Lewis and Joy Davidman, even though it’s obvious there was some sort of sexual element to these relationships. Perhaps McGrath found this matter distasteful, or thought the book’s Christian readers would. In any case, this omission is to me the one glaring lacuna in an otherwise thorough life story.
Robin Sachs’s stately narration lends the perfect air of British respectability to the audio edition. His pronunciation of some of the book’s more arcane linguistic and literary terms are, for the most part, spot on. As mentioned earlier, the inclusion of an interview with Alister McGrath, is a welcome addition, and provides additional insights into an already insightful work. Another minor quibble: I feel the interview should have been included at the end of the audiobook, rather than the beginning. I prefer to go into a book unbiased by the author’s later thoughts on the book. Again, though, this quibble is very minor. What does conclude the audiobook, however, is an amazing recording of Lewis at his deep-timbres lecturing finest.
There are certainly many other windows into the lives of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings. Despite the influence of these authors on my own life, I have to admit I have not read most of these other works. So I’m very glad that one of the first I’ve read has proved to be such an enlightening and entertaining journey, (mostly) free from the partisanship and polarity that plague some biographies of relatively recent figures. I can’t think of many readers who wouldn’t benefit from or at least be entertained by Alister McGrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life.
Posted by Seth Wilson
After Jon Meacham’s terrific mini-interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart I was very pleased that Random House Audio sent us Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Read by Edward Herrmann, who is an excellent narrator, this audiobook runs almost 19 hours.
I look forward to it.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Posted by Jenny Colvin
Posted by Jenny Colvin