I feel the fundamental question underlying biography reading is: Why? Why the life of this person? Why only this person? Why Murray Gell-Mann but not John Archibald Wheeler? Why Isaac Asimov but not Robert Anson Heinlein? Why Richard Feynman but not Edward Teller? Why Agatha Christie but not Dorothy Sayers? or Why Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers but not P.D. James?…
You might say that you read a life because of an incomprehensible feeling of affinity towards the personality, life interests, and work of the person in question.
You might say that you are interested in the specific period of time in which the person spent the prime of his-her life and that he-she was an acutely perceptive observer and commentator of his-her time or an active participant in the great events of the period or a confidant and collaborator of the great minds of the time in his-her field of work.
Maybe you hope to be privy to the inner-workings of the mind that produced the works you enjoy most. Maybe you feel the life of a person is likely to be as much fun as his-her work. Maybe you feel the life of an author is likely to be as much fun to read as his-her books.
Whatever your belief or mine, the lives we choose to read ultimately form a loosely patterned set of artifacts that, to paraphrase Borges, form a patient labyrinth of lines that traces the lineaments of our own faces.
P.S: I might end up reading John Wheeler’s autobiography after all. How can I resist a book titled Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics? What’s more, it’s a Norton paperback. For those who don’t know what that means, here is a one-line translation: Buttery yellow off-white pages flowing with smooth typography in an indulgently opulent font, paired with elegant cover art. And in this particular instance, the cover photograph showing Wheeler looking at a diagram-filled blackboard conveys an urgent sense of immediacy that seems to suck you into an eventful golden-age when all of physics flowed out of apparently whimsical scribblings on a blackboard.