Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 193 (8/15) -- An Education by Lynn Barber

Every life is not necessarily worth a book. Even those lives worth writing (or reading) about may be best at very different lengths -- I'm greatly looking forward to the century-delayed triple-decker Autobiography of Mark Twain, which will appear starting this fall, for one example on the long side -- and so it's a good thing that Lynn Barber, a solid British journalist substantially less known for her work on this side of the pond, has kept her memoirs to a trim 172 pages.

An Education has a misleading title, probably because it grew out of a shorter piece Barber wrote for Granta back in 2003, and that shorter piece ran through its own channels to become a movie (of the same name) at about the same time Barber was publishing the book. The book An Education contains a chapter (its second) entitled "An Education," and the chapter is essentially the Granta piece. But the rest of the book An Education contains a preliminary chapter on Barber's childhood, and then a series of later chapters on her life after the secondary-school period (and the two-year affair with a much older man, who turned out in the end to be married) -- Oxford, writing and editing for Penthouse, her husband David (and, later, his illness), her two daughters, and her return to journalism after a few years as a full-time mother. Each of those chapters is told quickly and precisely -- Barber hasn't been a working journalist for much of the last four decades for nothing. But each of them is essentially separate: these are the experiences, perhaps, that Barber thinks are most important about her life, but she tells them each in turn instead of telling her life as a whole and covering each experience as part of that life.

The teenage affair is the most interesting and odd thing that happened to Barber, but she doesn't give it a central place here -- it's just one more chapter in her life, important as she narrates its course, but then pushed aside, like yesterday's papers, as she moves on to talk about the next thing that happened to her. An Education could have been more focused and had a clearer scope, in any of several ways -- the people Barber has known, the journalism she's done, her life as a child compared to her adult life, how that teenage affair affected her outlook from that point forward -- but she instead touches on each of those aspects briefly, without letting any of them dominate or any real structure define An Education.

Barber is a smart working journalist, so An Education is always readable, and full of great stories about things she did and people she knew. (Although, even then, An Education is so short that she mostly announces that she has great stories to tell, sketches them briefly, and then moves on.) Sadly, An Education the book is less ineffable and thought-provoking than An Education the movie; it's an interesting look back at one successful journalistic career, but no more than that.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

1 comment:

Rutila said...

I found the most interesting portions of An Education after "An Education." Her accounts of enjoying the freewheeling sixties, working for Penthouse, and undergoing extreme stress duing her husband's illness were more touching than her stint with Simon.

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