Since I've been overseas, I've read a lot of biographies. Right now I'm reading one on former Russian leader Khruschev. In the last few years I've read books about Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson, Albert Einstein, Francois Truffaut, Condoleeza Rice, Alexander the Great, Fidel Castro, Pierre Trudeu, Paul Martin, Muhammad Ali, John "A Beautiful Mind" Nash, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and probably somebody else that I've forgot about, which means that their life wasn't meaningful.
Doesn't it? A good biography will make you believe that somebody's life, hell, anybody's life, did, in fact, have meaning, a shape and a purpose that can only be made clear by analyzing it in exhausting detail.
At their best, biographies allow you a glimpse into the totality of a person's life. Perhaps noone's life is ever meant to be examined in such exhausting detail, and there is, of course, the danger that the biographer has a particular axe to grind -- or, even worse, idolizes their subject so much that even obvious faults are rationalized to the nth degree. Even so, I think biographies are a perfect way to glimpse a significant person in their particular historical context. In other words, you learn the era through the man (or woman) being profiled. You see the tides of history recede or advance based on one person's actions. Character defines events, and events then define character.
At their worst, biographies can be, well, boring. There's a part in Stephen King's book ON WRITING where he's focusing on the primary, paramount importance of the story when writing, um, stories. Some people think it's all about character, King says (and I'm paraphrasing), but if you want character, go and read a biography. You'll get all the character you need.
I think I know what he means. Many biographies, after the first few hundreds pages or so, turn into a variation of: "And then he did this. And then he did that. And then he did this. Oh, and then he did that, can you believe it?"
What's missing? A narrative. The best biographers try to shape some kind of story into their profiles' lives, if only because the reader, to some degree, expects it. We live our lives through narrative, I think, creating one's for ourselves and expecting it in the examples of others. There's a fundamental need for continuity and structure in our existence; good biographies will look for those nooks and crannies in their subjects lives that indicate WHERE and WHY things took place. They will look for a framework. If necessary, they will make one up.
All written words are attempts at meaning. Attempts at biography are efforts focused on one life in one particular period of time. There may not be a logical story; there may not be an identifiable narrative. The author (and the reader) may search in vein for any kind of structure at all. Some people's lives are so chaotic and messy and, well, human that narratives elude not only their chroniclers but themselves, too. But by examining these lives and crafting an arc (as arbitrary and nonexistant as it may be), biographers allow us to revel in the sways and shifts of another's person time on earth. We can gain advice and seek solace in the actions of others. We can compare who we are and where we came from with the giants that once walked this earth. We can identify and empathize with the best and worst in ourselves.