"Reading" Biographies

Feb 19, 2020

The essence of Murrow was what some readers were seeking
Credit Wikimedia Commons

This is Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte. 

I’ll admit that biographies are not my thing. That chronological march through time, ticking off events big and small, then the crescendo to greatness, usually a war, followed by the fall from grace either through age or act, and eventually—the legacy that endures.

Although I may admire the subject, I find the form rather predictable. The writers are usually competent, and the research impressive. But biography is a genre that kicks against my favorite reason to read—which is style, and the voice of the author.

But this time, I didn’t read the book. Instead I listened to the audiobook of Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, which is read by the author Bob Edwards. 

Librarians have been telling me for years that audiobooks count, and that my traditionalist ways—my misguided belief that it’s not really reading unless I am reading with, you know, my eyes—that these beliefs are old fashioned and silly. 

The librarians, as usual, are right. So, I listened to the audiobook while logging the many miles of two-lane highways in central Kansas that make up my workdays. Bob Edwards has a soothing voice, and his respect and affection for Murrow carries the story.

And then I found my way with reading—or listening or doing—biography. During breaks in the audiobook, I went to internet searches. Wikipedia, YouTube. Then to movies. The PBS Biography series. I even scanned posts on Reddit. All of this rounded out Edward R. Murrow for me, put meat on that timeline, and gave me what I miss in biographies—style. But it wasn’t Edwards’s style I needed. It was Murrow’s.

So much about Edward R. Murrow is the physical embodiment of him. The cufflinks. The stern and measured countenance. The sideways smile that relays mirth, or fraternity, or maybe even a dismissive moving-on. And of course, there is the smoking. So many cigarettes, three packs a day, and the clouds of smoke in that black-and-white mise en scene of early television. 

Cigarettes were an extension of Murrow and put him squarely at that place and at that time in history. I’ll never confuse him with another journalistic great, because Murrow could have never been Murrow in the 1890s, or the 1920s, or even the 1970s. And never, ever today.

But cigarettes also had to have been a part of his creative and work process. Being a writer myself, I know how vital physical habits are to one’s contemplative, thinking self. Seeing the smoking, for me, opened the character of Murrow in a way the book alone did not. I needed to witness his style in a way that didn’t reveal itself on the page, or the narrative. 

Many of you better readers out there—those of you more sophisticated than me, whom I imagine reading in high-backed Chesterfield chairs, with a scotch near at hand and a well-mannered cat on your lap—you readers, I know, love a big, meaty biography about the great generals of the Civil War, or Robert Caro’s four volumes on Lyndon Johnson. You have my respect, and great envy. You are the kind of reader I want to be. But Bob Edwards’s book made me realize that I do like biographies quite a bit—I just need a few multi-media excursions off that march through time.

This is Leslie VonHolten for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club. I encourage you to read—or listen to—Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards along with us. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.