plea to biographers: don’t put the chapter on ancestry at the beginning!

I read biographies on occasion, and often there is a chapter at the very beginning discussing how the individual’s ancestors came from who-knows-where and bought land in who-knows-where and then – in the next generation – they moved over to Here and bought a parcel at There, et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, this serves as little more than a right-of-passage to get into the actual biography, as it bears little apparent relation to the life story that follows.

I’m currently reading (er, listening to) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, and in the course of the book, she gives just some of that family history. But here’s the key: she gives it about 40% into the book, now that I’m already invested in the characters and can think about how their ancestry might be relevant.

It’s parallel to advice I received from a graduate school advisor (in economics): Don’t write a stand-alone literature review; instead, write about the literature in the course of the paper, wherever it is most relevant.

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