Everybody’s got favorite books. Books that must be owned, books to read again and again, books that offer new discoveries every time through. Some of my favorite works of fiction include Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, Islands in the Stream, by Ernest Hemingway, The World According to Garp, by John Irving, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, and anything by Charles Portis.
But my favorite nonfiction book is The Beatles: The Biography, by Bob Spitz. The book is a tour de force of many of the things that mark great writing--and great writers. Among them are its strength as a research document, its powerful story, its creative craft, and the structure and detail used to present and illustrate it. So let’s look at the elements of The Beatles: The Biography that appeal to me as a writer and a reader.
As a research writing instructor, I love this book because it is one of the great pieces of research writing I’ve ever come across. Spitz is exhaustive not only in the amount of cited material he provides, but in the details of the notes themselves. His preface for the "Notes" section gives further insight into his approach to source material, and while his notation method isn’t my favorite (there are no in-text superscript citations, as in, say, Chicago Manual of Style; readers are forced to find the corresponding text in the sequential notations broken up only by chapter), it demonstrates a commitment to disclosure, which is the transparency at the heart of all good research writing. I emailed Bob Spitz about this citation style, and he told me that it was his own creation.
The story of the Beatles is the story of all of us. It’s our hopes and dreams made manifest, with all their triumphs and pitfalls. It’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Adventure, over and over. It’s rags to riches and falls from grace--and every cliche in between. We connect with the Beatles because they were tough little “Scousers” from Liverpool who had a dream, and few other options. And if we’re the landed gentry, we connect with the Beatles because of their astonishing success. We connect with them on a dreamy, fantasy level, and we connect with them because of all their missteps. They are a concentrated expression of humanity, and their story is ours.
I admire this book because of its craft. Spitz contextualizes the individual quotes he uses--nearly 900 of them--building them into scenes, and a scene is to a story as a paragraph is to an essay: the basic unit of composition. Scenes are how we make sense of the world, stringing all these little episodes into an uber-narrative that becomes our life stories. After the Beatles’ Philippine fiasco, Spitz paints the scene of the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, cracking under pressure on the plane ride out. An interview with one of the Beatles’ entourage describes Brian as “seizing with tension” (624). The scene concludes when Epstein “(f)inally, blew a gasket” (625). Minor scenic expressions like this weave throughout the book, building the characters, allowing the reader direct access to the story.
Those scenic building blocks allow Spitz to construct a solid framework upon which he attaches the larger story of the band. While the narrative--any biographical narrative--will be governed by chronology, Spitz has the ability to drill down into the story and pick out the relevant events. The book is divided into three parts--Mercy, Mania, Mastery--representing Spitz’s interpretation of the three major parts of the Beatles’ lives, from their origins to the demise of the band. Having major divisions allows the author to work within them without distraction, while still focusing on the larger story. Each of the book’s 37 chapters is further broken into sub-chapters (I, II, III, IV…). And these sub-chapters were divided into detailed scenes. Chapter 13, section IV, for example, comprises two detailed scenes. The first details the direction the Beatles took after Stuart Sutcliffe’s departure: recording. The second describes their recording session with Tony Sheridan (249). That structure--the scenic building blocks--make the story elements manageable, allowing the author to elaborate where necessary without seeming tangential.
The details presented in this book are wonderful, and they give the reader access to the mood, the feeling of the story. For example, Spitz discusses the circumstances of an early performance by the Quarry Men (the ur-Beatles): “By Liverpool standards, the Levis program was an extravaganza” (57). This is the kind of line that a reader might unconsciously consume without a second thought. But it’s the first line in a paragraph, classifying it as a topic sentence, and it’s followed by details that define it as an “extravaganza.” This sounds like a small thing, and it is--that’s why it’s a detail. And the research required to discuss whatever the Levis program was shows how much probably didn't end up in the book. But it’s the details that build the story, and the ability to linger within them marks a truly great narrative.
Bob Spitz has created a thorough, fresh, and complete picture of the Beatles. He’s plotted a story easily allows a reader to become drawn in, and he’s supported it with wonderful details. But most of all, he’s told a story that we want to hear, and that's why I love this book. Even the epigraph rocks:
When the mode of the music changes,
the walls of the city shake.
Spitz, Bob. The Beatles: The Biography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005,
Spitz, Bob. Personal correspondence. January 7, 2013.