Literary Passports to Other People's Lives

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EVERY year about this time, as students across the country are anticipating - or already savoring - their first heady days of vacation, I think about making a very temporary career change. Instead of sitting in front of a computer terminal, coaxing words and sentences into shape - the daily terror and delight of a journalist - I dream of engaging briefly in another kind of friendly persuasion: coaxing students into discovering the pleasures of summer reading. In one imaginary scenario, I am a visiting teacher on the last day of school. As fidgety pupils wait for the final bell to spring them free, I hand out a reading list. Not just any reading list, but one filled with biographical titles that will give vacationing readers insight into the minds and lives of noted thinkers and doers.

In another seasonal flight of the imagination, I am a substitute librarian, putting the finishing touches on a summer reading program. Colorful posters decorate the library's Youth Room, listing the names of all participants. Each fiction and general nonfiction book a student reads will merit one gold star on the chart. Each biography and autobiography will earn two stars.

Why this emphasis on books about other people's lives? In part, it reflects my own childhood pleasure in reading my way through a set of simple biographies at our branch library. Inside those worn orange covers with black silhouettes lay worlds and situations and people I could scarcely imagine from the boundaries of my sheltered middle-class, Middle Western existence. These books were my literary passports into the seemingly foreign lands inhabited by George Washington Carver, Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, and Louisa May Alcott.

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But the importance of biography to youthful readers goes far beyond any personal preference. For a generation raised on the cameo portraits of People magazine and the superficial glitz of TV's ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,'' biographies and autobiographies offer a look at the whole of a subject's life. They show the private fears and failures that often lie behind public smiles and triumphs. They offer definitions of success as varied as the individuals themselves. They are books at the level of moral exemplars. As testaments of courage and intensity, they lend courage and intensity to the reader's life.

Although biography can be valuable for any student, it may be particularly important for girls and young women. Theirs is a generation, after all, that is growing up with expectations of unlimited possibilities. By reading about women ahead of them, they gain a glimpse of a time when doors were not yet open, when women still struggled against great odds to succeed.

Some of the most engaging works for teen-age girls profile contemporary women. Among them is Gloria Steinem's essay ``Ruth's Song,'' included in her book ``Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.'' The piece is a touching remembrance of Ms. Steinem's troubled mother, and of the role reversal that turned a very young Gloria into a maternal protector and guardian.

Eudora Welty's ``One Writer's Beginning'' remains a perennial favorite. And one of this summer's best autobiographies for older teens (and their parents) is ``The Road from Coorain,'' by Jill Ker Conway. It is a long way from the dusty outback of Australia to the green campus of Smith College in Massachusetts. But anyone reading Mrs. Conway's moving account of her childhood on a drought-plagued sheep ranch will have no trouble finding there the seeds of Conway's later success as the first female president of Smith.

In a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, published as part of a Chelsea House series on ``American Women of Achievement,'' Matina Horner, the outgoing president of Radcliffe College, outlines the value of biographies. In an introduction for young readers she writes:

``Biography can inspire not only by adulation, but also by realism. It helps us to see not only the qualities in others that we hope to emulate, but also, perhaps, the weaknesses that made them `human.' By helping us identify with the subject on a more personal level, they help us to feel that we, too, can achieve such goals.''

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