Autobiographies tend to fall into one of three categories: fascinating, boring, or completely unreadable. Authors, consciously or not, shape their legacy, but if that becomes their primary goal, it will almost certainly fall into one of the latter two categories.
I recently read two travel-related autobiographies that qualify as fascinating: The Island, My Life in Music and Beyond, by Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley (Gallery Books, 2022) and Way Out There, Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker ” by J. Robert Harris (Mountaineers Books, 2017). In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I know both men, and I also admit that knowing them brought a level of uneasiness to sitting down with the books. I’ve read books written by people I know before that were disappointing to such an extent that it changed my overall impression of them.
“The Islander, My Life in Music and Beyond,” by Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley, and “Way Out There, Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker” by J. Robert Harris. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gallery Books and Mountaineer Books
This was not the case with either of these. What makes both so compelling is that each goes beyond the mundane descriptions of their lives and accomplishments and devotes as much time as possible to recreating the outside influences that shaped who they are. Blackwell does not simply use Jamaica as a backdrop for his formative years, but reveals the 360-degree environment that, in a very real sense, created him. Harris’ insights into the places he traverses are deeply connected to the places themselves, which he describes wonderfully.
Providing this context makes these books much more than self-portraits or travelogues. Blackwell takes care not only to recreate the Jamaica where he grew up, but also the popular culture scene of the 60s in London and the portrayals of the little-known but highly influential people he met along the way. Similarly, Harris provides fascinating and sometimes obscure historical and geological background to the sights he travels through, the people he meets, and the attractions I had no idea existed.
As for The Islander, I should mention at the outset that, although Blackwell was perhaps more responsible for the revival of South Miami Beach than any single individual and subsequently built a collection of unique accommodations in Jamaica, the book is over 90 percent . for his music career. He devotes only one chapter to hospitality, related to the launch of a rum brand and various other things.
But the book will still engage anyone curious about travel and music. Blackwell’s vision for hotels was clearly shaped by his Jamaican upbringing and Island Records experiences, and he reveals himself as an observant world traveler.
Regarding his personal life, he is discreet and leaves only a few clues: with the exception of his last wife, Mary Vinson, the reader only knows about his previous marriages with occasional and inaccurate references to ex- women. . This Is Not The Life of Keith Richards (2010, Little, Brown & Co.).
But overall, his written narrative voice accurately reflects his actual story. If my experience reading The Islander is typical, one beneficiary of the publication will be Spotify: its musical knowledge is so deep and its descriptions of musicians so vivid that I was constantly checking the songs and artists it featured. attention.
Harris, who in the mid-1970s started JRH Marketing Services, the oldest African-American-owned research and consulting firm, is a solo traveler who travels without a support crew and has made more than 40 two-week trips across remote regions. Although alone, he is never completely alone in nature and describes the wildlife he encounters as well as the travelers he meets along the way and is mindful of the pioneers who explored the areas before him. He gives credit where credit is due and devotes a chapter to “the kindness of strangers.”
Although he usually traveled alone, a neighbor he sometimes traveled with convinced him to consider starting a wilderness guiding business. The idea went as far as creating a logo, stationary, business cards, and a brochure, and they became licensed guides, but Harris, who was skeptical of the idea, writes, “Thankfully, we never had to take anyone back home. “.
And the wild animals take over too. One chapter, “Alone and Afraid,” tells of his journey to polar bear country above the Arctic Circle.
Like Blackwell, Harris also weaves his own childhood experiences into the narrative: growing up in public housing and, most importantly, being a Boy Scout.
“Way Out There” begs for a sequel — it covers less than a quarter of his travels, and Harris has told me he has extensive journals chronicling his travels.
It is appropriate, I think, for men to wait until they are well into their lives to write their autobiographies, but it is remarkable that these are not mere reflections of men surveying their achievements. Rather, they are a summary of what they have achieved until now.
Harris is 78 years old and still plans trips. Blackwell, 84, helped “Get Up Stand Up!”, a musical about the life of Bob Marley, open in London last year. He writes: “I always said I’d live to be 94… Now that I’m 84, 94 seems a little closer… I don’t want to be greedy, but my mother lived to be 104.”