Who says a biography has to be huge?

The world's literary chain-saw critics are out for blood. What's behind all the commotion? A new line of "pocket biographies" published by Penguin Books.

Launched under the banner of Penguin Lives, the series of 24 short biographies is designed to hook up today's high-powered stylists with yesterday's mega-icons.

The first two books, released last month, include Edmund White on Marcel Proust and Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse. Future matches include Carol Shields on Jane Austen, Jonathon Spence on Mao Tse-tung, George Plimpton on Muhammed Ali, Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens, and Peter Gay on Mozart.

Physically, the books have a collectible, matched sense about them. They flaunt a '50s bookish look - complete with muted colors and a photo of the subject shown through a hole in the center of the cover. None of the books extends beyond 150 pages.

"Biography lite," some will surely wag. A few critics have already accused the series of being unduly influenced by the popularity of the A&E Biography TV series, not to mention the weekly froth served up by People magazine. They mock the initiative as part of the miniaturization of our culture, one whose principle characteristics are a brief attention span and a preference for superficiality over deep knowledge.

But can such easy cynicism really be tolerated in an era when not just the book but basic literacy is endangered? Biography is an enormously popular genre and always has been because there's a texture of actuality to it. It's entertainment written in the ink of life.

Call it voyeurism or escapism, but many find it reassuring to discover that superachievers like Mozart and Eleanor Roosevelt endured rough childhoods and traumatic setbacks. Broader historical and cultural epochs become more palatable when served with a main entree that includes a personality. It's easier, for example, to get an understanding of turn-of-the-century England when you digest it through the life of Oscar Wilde.

Biographies the length of a long New Yorker article could attract big-selling writers on an economical basis and even attract readers to buy several a year.

Series editor James Atlas recently told book editors: "Now, more than ever, with time at a premium in our wired-up and increasingly distracted society, the short form seems to make sense for both writers and readers."

Indeed, if it's well crafted and judiciously edited, a short biography can be just as good as a 1,000 page tome. The Penguin Lives short format means that authors have to deliver a perfectly paced performance that allows a thesis-oriented approach to their subjects. Ideally, these new books will interest both generalists and specialists as well as add to the scholarly literature.

This new series offers high-concept Cliff Notes for culture vultures to buff up their dinner-party conversation. It's definitely one step above using what they saw on Entertainment Tonight.

*Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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