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Alfred Stieglitz:  Photographs and Writings
by Alfred Stieglitz

Elitist and difficult as he could be, he nonetheless transformed our view of photography forever.

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Alfred Stieglitz Steichen

Steichen:  A Biography
by Penelope Niven

The true genius who brought modern art to America and was hailed as the first great photographic artist.

New Perspectives on F. Holland Day
by multiple authors

Fred Holland Day
Edward Weston

Edward Weston:
His Life

by Ben Maddow

Ansel Adams:
An Autobiography

by Ansel Adams

His life in his own words.

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams:
A Biography

by Mary Street Alinder

All the good stuff Ansel left out.

Ansel Adams

Walker Evans
by James R. Mellow and
Hilton Kramer

Walker Evans

Dorothea Lange:
A Photographer’s Life

by Milton Meltzer

Dorothea Lange

ShadowLight: A Photographer’s Life
by Freeman Patterson

Freeman Patterson

Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life
by Nancy Mowll Mathews

Paul Gauguin
Tina Modotti

Tina Modotti:
Radical Photographer

by Margaret Hooks

In many ways her life was more interesting than that of her famous lover, Weston.

El Lissitzky

El Lissitzky: Boyond the Abstract Cabinet: Photography, Design, Collaboration
by Margarita Tupitsyn, Matthew Drutt, Ulrich Pohlmann

Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White:
Her Pictures
were Her Life

by Susan Goldman Rubin

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus:
A Biography

by Patricia Bosworth

John Adams

John Adams
by David McCullough

Van Gogh and Gauguin

Van Gogh and Gauguin:
the Studio of the South

by Douglas Druick, Peter Kort Zegers

Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees:
A Life of the Contemporary Artist Robert Erwin

by Lawrence Weschler

Robert Erwin Pablo Picasso

Life With Picasso
by Francoise Gilot

On Writing:
A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King

Dream Catcher:
A Memoir

by Margaret A. Salinger

By J.D. Salinger’s daughter.

Alan Turing: The Enigma
by Andrew Hodges and Douglas Hofstadter

The man who built the first electronic calculator and laid the foundations for modern computer science.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater
by Thomas De Quincey

The classic tale of addiction, and much more.

Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
by Francis A. Yates

Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy.

Stephen King
Margaret Salinger
Alan Turing
Thomas De Quincey
Giordano Bruno

John Barleycorn:
Alcoholic Memoirs

by Jack London

“Alcohol is his adventure.”

Jack London

William James:
His Life and Thought

by Gerald E. Myers

A comprehensive study and bibliographical reference.

William James

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
by Nancy Milford

Edna St. Vincent Millay

The Passion of
Michel Foucault

by James Miller

The controversial biography.

Michel Foucault

The Skeptic: A Life of
H.L. Mencken

by Terry Teachout

The Skeptic

Bob Dylan Chronicles
Volume One

by Bob Dylan

Trenchant and illuminating.

Bob Dylan Chronicles
James Murray
James Murray
Einstein & Picasso
John Dee
Thomas Harriot
Jack London
John Dewey
Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey
Catherine Millet
Happy Days
Rimbaud:  A Biography

The Professor
and the Madman

by Simon Winchester

About the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and W.C. Minor.

Caught in the Web of Words
by K.M. Elisabeth Murray

James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty that Causes Havoc
by Arthur I. Miller

Two geniuses.

John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance
by William H. Sherman

Reevaluates Dee’s position as a scholar and scientist.

Thomas Harriot:
Science Pioneer

by Ralph Staiger

Mathematician, astronomer, universal man, Harriot was Walter Raleigh’s best friend.

Jack London:  A Biography
by Daniel Dyer

An American legend.

John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism
by Alan Ryan

Dewey was a landmark in the history of American ideas.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
by Louis Menand

Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey.

The Sexual Life of Catherine M
by Catherine Millet

The shocking bestseller.

Happy Days: 1880-1892
by H.L. Mencken

Volume I of his autobiography.

Rimbaud: A Biography
by Graham Robb

The best bio of this caustic poet and adventurer.

Marshall McLuhan, Escape into Understanding, A Biography by W. Terrence Gordon (Basic Books, New York:  1997).  This is the only authorized biography of the fMarshall McLuhanamous so-called media guru.  The author was allowed access to McLuhan’s journals and papers, and conducted extensive interviews with his family, friends, and collaborators.  In my opinion this is not a compelling book, but it is nonetheless well-written, quite thorough, and a must-read for serious McLuhan buffs.  Outwardly, McLuhan did not live a particularly fascinating life, but the world of ideas he throve in is beyond the grasp of many lesser minds.  He was a serious scholar who read voraciously and who saw relationships in the most disparate systems of thought.  His crucial insight was that the invention of moveable type (i.e., print technology) altered the sense ratios of literate man and gave him a visual bias that that has transformed the world.  McLuhan followed this insight with the more general one that it is not so much the content of our media that change our lives, but the media themselves.  Hence, “the medium is the message.”  McLuhan excelled at seeing the big picture.  Terrence Gordon has written a well balanced and readible biography that challenges us to understand this very complex man.  In reflecting on my own intellectual history, I find that many of the most important books I have read were introduced to me by Marshall McLuhan.

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The Man Who Knew Infinity:  A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York:  1991).  This book is really two biographies in Ramanumanone--Ramanujan, the Indian mathematical genius, and G.H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematics professor who discovered his genius and helped bring it to flower.  Both were very interesting men.  Ramanujan was a devout Hindu brahmin, socially inept and dominated by a controlling mother, who lived in a realm of abstract number theory so advanced that only a dozen people in the world could understand the import of his work.  Ramanujan made intuitive leaps that the world’s best mathematicians are still struggling with.  He died of tuberculosis at the age of 32.  Hardy was a brilliant and eccentric academic, member of the famed Apostles club at Cambridge, and proponent of pure (as opposed to applied)  mathematics.  He spent much of his life probing  the theorums Ramanujan sketched out in his brief but fervid life.  Hardy gave Ramanujan the mathematical background and discipline he needed to harness his genius and actually prove his speculations.  Hardy was said to be a brilliant conversationalist, an avid cricket (and later a baseball) fan, and perhaps the greatest lecturer in abstract mathematics of the 20th century.  This book tells the stories of Ramanujan’s and Hardy’s  lives and their remarkable collaboration; it outlines and attempts to explain the import of their mathematical achievements, but does not go into the complex math as, even today, very few people can understand it.

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Autobiography, by John Stuart Mill (Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Bombay, and Calcutta:  1908).  Mill, like his father, was a polymath, and one of the most remarkable men of his age.  Born in the year 6 of the 19th century, and educated by his father from the time he was three, Mill was one of the great English liberal thinkers.  He has influenced generations of English-speaking people with his democratic ideals.  His principal writings include The System of Logic, Principals of Political Economy, On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and the Autobiography. On Liberty has been, as he himself predicted, his most lasting work--one that is still much read in our own day. 

I absolutely fell in love with Mill's prose, which has rarely been equalled for its beauty.  To give you an idea both of the content of the Autobiography and the quality of Mill's prose I should like to provide two quotes.  The first is in regard to his father and his early education:

"It would have been no small thing, had he done no more than to support himself and his family during so many years by writing, without ever being in debt, or in any pecuniary difficulty; holding, as he did, opinions, both in politics and in religion, which were more odious to all persons of influence, and to the common run of prosperous Englishmen, in that generation than either before or since; and being not only a man whom nothing would have induced to write against his convictions, but one who invariably threw into everything he wrote, as much of his convictions as he thought the circumstance would in any way permit:  being, it must also be said, one who never did anything negligently; never undertook any task, literary or other, on which he did not conscientiously bestow all the labour necessary for performing it adequately.  [...]  And to this is to be added, that during the whole period, a considerable part of almost every day was employed in the instruction of his children:  in the case of one of whom, myself, he exerted an amount of labour, care, and perseverance rarely, if ever, employed for a similar purpose, in endeavouring to give, according to his own conception, the highest order of intellectual education.

John Stuart Mill"I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek; I have been told that it was when I was three years old.  [...]  I learnt no Latin until my eighth year."

In this second quote, Mill speaks of his collaboration with his wife:

"When two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common; when all subjects of intellectual or moral interest are discussed between them in daily life, and probed to much greater depths than are usually or conveniently sounded in writings intended for general readers; when they set out from the same principles, and arrive at their conclusions by processes pursued jointly, it is of little consequence in respect to the question of originality, which of them holds the pen; the one who contributes least to the composition may contribute most to the thought; the writings which result are the joint product of both, and it must often be impossible to disentangle their respective parts, and affirm that this belongs to one and that to the other.  In this wide sense, not only during the years of our married life, but during many of the years of confidential friendship which preceded, all my published writings were as much her work as mine; her share in them constantly increasing as years advanced."

My copy of Autobiography is a paperback printed in 1908, with a signature on the cover:  Stephen McKenna, 20.3.09.  It is beginning to lose its covers, but otherwise it is still readable at 91 years old.  (How many have read it in 91 years?)  I worry about the longevity of our electronic media, so I’m glad I still have my library of dead-trees to pass on to posterity.  This book is currently out of print.

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