It goes without saying, almost, that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the question biographers need to ask themselves is whether the minutely examined life is worth reading. And the answer to this question, taken in the abstract, is that it depends.

It depends, principally, though not entirely, on the subject of the biography. If his life is so momentous, his achievements so great, or his effect upon history so tremendous (usually for the worse), that a detailed account of his life will increase our understanding not just of him but of the world in which we live, then a volume of large size need not daunt us, or cause us to fear that we are wasting time that might be better employed than reading about the fluctuations in the life of a person of limited consequence. Lamentably, Hitler is among the figures about whom we can hardly know too much: Lenin, Stalin, and Mao are of similar ilk. Professor Frank’s five-volume bio ...