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PUBLISHING / A new spin on biographies

Penguin Lives: Here's the Real Skinny

April 07, 1999|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A few years ago James Atlas broke the 1,200-page barrier with his biography of Saul Bellow. The manuscript was thicker than the New York City Yellow Pages and gave the heavy-duty printer at his office a good workout. Reading the book, which was eventually pruned to a lean 800 pages and hasn't yet been published, wasn't going to be any breeze either.

Wouldn't it be nice, thought Atlas, to read a good biography that wouldn't qualify as extra luggage on most airlines?

He mentioned the idea over lunch to Kenneth Lipper, chairman of Lipper & Co., a New York investment firm that manages $5 billion in assets. Lipper is also a writer--whose novel "Wall Street" became an Oliver Stone film--and a producer whose credits include the documentary "The Last Days."

Which is how a new series of svelte books about important personages by top-flight writers was born. Called Penguin Lives, the biographical essays are published by Lipper/Viking, a joint venture between Lipper and Penguin Putnam. Lipper put several million dollars of his own money into the project and owns half the business. Atlas, a writer for the New Yorker perhaps best known for his essays about how little money he makes, is the general editor for the series.

"We're talking about biographical essays where great authors take a point of view and enter into the person's life at a particular time," Lipper says. "It's very different from a standard biography. It's not trying to achieve the same thing but to maintain the same scholarly standards. It's more focused on a turning point in a person's life or a character-defining moment. We're digging more deeply into a particular element of a person's history or development."

The first two books, which came out in January, were Larry McMurtry writing on Crazy Horse and Edmund White on Marcel Proust. Both books earned good reviews and spots on the New York Times bestseller lists and have gone through multiple printings. Coming in June, Garry Wills on St. Augustine and Peter Gay on Mozart; followed in September by Jonathan Spence on Mao Tse-tung and Edna O'Brien on James Joyce.

Six books are planned each year for four years. None, Lipper promises, will break 200 pages or top $20. The hallmark of the project, Atlas says, will be the pairing of author and subject--which has resulted in the rare publishing occurrence of writers turning in manuscripts on time. "They've been thinking about these subjects all their lives," Atlas says. "With White's Proust book, it was clearly [already] all in his head."

A somewhat similar venture is the Library of Contemporary Thought, which Random House editor Peter Gethers has been cranking out of his Greenwich Village apartment under the aegis of Ballantine Publishing since last year. The effort, which allows well-known writers to produce short books on current topics, has produced slim bestsellers like Anna Quindlen's "How Reading Changed My Life" and former President Jimmy Carter's "The Virtues of Aging."

But previous attempts to make a continuing business of supermodel-skinny books, such as Whittle Communications' advertising-laden books in the early 1990s, have gone belly up. Atlas, on the other hand, maintains that the small, handsomely produced Lives should have far longer lives themselves than the usual door-stopping biographies do.

"There's no reason these books should be pulled from the shelf in six weeks," he says. "These books will backlist. They should have continued sales far beyond the normal cycle."

Lipper compares the exercise to compressing the coal of a life into a diamond of a small book. "The writers don't seem to reduce what they're saying as much as focus it," he says. "I want to get very high-quality thoughts into the broadest possible circulation. These books are geared to people who are educated but have limited time. America seems to be obsessed with how to do it, how to get rich. Biography is about how someone lived his life, how he did it, his thought process. There's a tremendous fascination in America with learning how people lived their lives. The series distills those turning points."

Coming up, Lipper says, is a similar series of science books and a plan for television documentaries based on the Lives books.

"There's room to reach more people," he says.

For More Reviews, Read Book Review

* This Sunday: Carlos Fuentes on "Americanos: Latino Life in the United States"; Paul Fussell and Gloria Emerson on Vietnam; Johanna Neuman on George Stephanopoulos; and the Magic Bookshelf, a parents' guide to the best children's literature.

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