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Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-John LennonPhilip Norman has written biographies of several musicians, including Buddy Holly and Sir Elton John, as well as an earlier book about The Beatles, Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation (1981).

The Topic: Norman sought to produce a semiofficial biography of Lennon, portraying him as both violent and manipulative, and warm and sensitive. Norman secured the first comprehensive interviews with some of Lennon’s closest associates. While some of them (most notably Yoko Ono) withdrew support from the project, Norman backed up his claims with extensive archival work and an extensive knowledge of The Beatles based on the years he spent covering the unraveling of their record company. The result is a Lennon biography of unprecedented size and scope.
Ecco. 864 pages. $34.95. ISBN: 006075401X

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"At once retrospective and immediate, the author pulls us through time with luminous detail, wisely resisting the temptation to psychoanalyze Lennon from afar. The result is a wonderful unfolding of Lennon’s life with all its talent, tenderness and tragedy." Lorne Entress

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Norman, author of the well-regarded Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation, provides enormously detailed accounts of John’s childhood in middle-class Liverpool and his lifelong insecurities; the birth, rise and contentious death of the Beatles; and the Yoko years. … In the end, neither Ms. Ono nor Mr. McCartney seemed pleased with Mr. Norman’s book. The reader should have no such problems." Michael Young

Toronto Star 4 of 5 Stars
"The witness accounts, verbatim conversations and reconstructed minutiae are evidence of Norman’s exhaustive research—three years in the gathering, a year in the writing and editing—but nothing we didn’t know or suspect about his complex and troubled subject. What really sets his book apart are the writer’s attention to and first-hand understanding of the economic, class, geographical, historical, cultural and sociological details of Lennon’s upbringing and circumstances." Greg Quill

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Densely detailed, intricately woven and elegantly told, John Lennon: The Life neither condemns nor condones, nor does it consecrate is subject. It does, however, examine the lingering myths and uncomfortable realities of the life of Lennon—some of them shocking even today." James Endrst

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Norman admires Lennon’s writing and musicianship and even appears to have some personal affection for Lennon. But he’s undone by his reporting, which again and again butts up against the ruthlessness and self-indulgence with which Lennon conducted his life." Glenn Garvin

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"If Norman had gone with a 200-page book called The New Stuff I Learned About John Lennon everyone might have been better off. … That said, there’s much to enjoy in the book; even with some missing or misconstrued facts, Norman is, for the most part, a meticulous researcher, sprinkling fine details into the anecdotes and memories that give a real sense of place and time." Mark Brown

Critical Summary

Critics generally praised John Lennon: The Life, though they often seemed shocked at how much hate and violence could be found in one of the 20th century’s most famous proponents of peace and love. Some were also taken aback by the book’s length—over 800 pages for a figure who famously lived only to age 40. But most reviewers concluded that the bulk of this biography was appropriate, not only because Norman is the first author to investigate Lennon in such detail but because his sense for which details are interesting (a well-developed portrayal of the young Lennon’s Liverpool) and which are not (Beatles ephemera) keeps the book moving at a steady pace.