Why do we enjoy reading about the lives of others so much? Biographies and autobiographies continue to be popular. I've just finished reading Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin. It' s the selection for my July Book Club. The woman who had chosen the book gave it to me, saying "It's a quick read." I wondered if she was apologizing for it or why she made the statement.
I noticed that the copy I had is a Young Readers edition, but I checked and there is an adult version plus a movie made after the book was published. My friend was right. It was a quick read but also an interesting one.
Li Cunxin was the sixth of seven sons in a peasant family who lived in one of the early communes in China during Mao's regime. He grew up in abject poverty with a stern but caring father and a mother who offered great love to all her sons. It was all she had to give. The boys were destined to work in the fields for the good of China as their father had done, but Fate stepped in for Cunxin. He was selected to attend a ballet school in Beijing when only age 11.
The autobiography continues through his years of schooling, the way he grew to love ballet, and his desperate homesickness. Fate intervened once again with his being chosen to go to Houston, Texas for two months to study with a famed choreographer. At age 18, he was overwhelmed with America, having been taught only of it's capitalist evils. Returning to China, he fights hard to return for a one year training period with the Houston Ballet Company. He rises to stardom, finds love and defects only a day before he is to return to China for good. The afterword allows us to see what has happened to him since his defection. He is married, father of three children, and is a motivational speaker who lives in Australia now.
When we read a biography, we can't help but compare the person's life to our own. We often end up admiring the person's journey through life, what they did to help others, or perhaps a great contribution to society that they've made. I also find it's a way to learn about other cultures and about the human mind. What makes people do things that others might never have attempted? What makes them have the drive to succeed when others are content to wallow in misery? In the case of this story, it gives an opportunity to see the way the government rule of the Chinese people affects their everyday life. And again--we cannot help but compare it to our own system.
I give a gold star to those who write autobiographies because they are leaving a perfectly wonderful personal history for their families. How fantastic it would be for someone to hand you a book written by your great-grandfather telling his life story. What a treasure!
I wouldn't want to read a steady diet of biographies, but once in awhile, they prove to be a rewarding read. What biography have you read that has stayed in your mind for a long time?