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Dave Wood's Book Report, Nov. 19, 2008

Here's a trio of new autobiographies that cover lots of time and lots of ground.

There aren't many literary figures who have had more stories written about them than the 18th century poet and lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, himself an accomplished biographer. (Read his concise and brilliant "Life of Richard Savage" for a sterling little life story.)

Johnson, of course, was first written about by James Boswell, the Scots sycophant who followed the grizzled Johnson around London, as if he were a dog chasing a gut cart.

Boswell's life of Johnson is always mentioned, but I've come to detest the work, as it is so self-serving. Of course many biographies have succeeded Boswell's and now there's yet another. "Samuel Johnson, a Biography," by Peter Martin (Harvard University Press, $35) takes on the clichéd Johnson, the Johnson of Boswell, the Johnson as typical 18th century rationalist.

Peter Martin, who also has written a life of Boswell, portrays Johnson as a hulking figure, full of self-doubt and disease, who used literature as an antidote to what he saw as his failings. Johnson was far ahead of his time on his position as an anti-colonialist and anti-slavery advocate. He also wrote and acted on behalf of the equality of women.

I'm no financial genius. My idea of investing is to buy postal savings bonds, but they don't sell them anymore. Still, there are certain investors and entrepreneurs that grab my imagination.

Last month I watched a "Sixty Minutes" segment in which oil magnate T. Boone Pickens was interviewed. The fellow who bankrolled the dirty tricks ads about presidential candidate John Kerry turned out to be a sentimentalist at heart and one who cares little about making more money.

Another such capitalist is Warren Buffett, the guy from Omaha, who runs Berkshire Hathaway, lives in a modest home, drives a Chevy. A few years back when he gave the majority of his wealth to charity and didn't even ask that the grant be named for him (the money went to the Gates Foundation). I thought what manner of man is this Buffett.

Well, I'm finding out with a new book just sent me "The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life," by Alice Schroeder (Bantam, $35). Buffett has avoided publicity, but has entrusted financial writer Schroeder to interview him in a longish book that doesn't have a lot of surprises, but is interesting as a portrait as a businessman who wants to treat everyone fairly.

Years ago, lots of us reporters and editors and government officials from the Hennepin County Courthouse took our lunches at a joint called "The Little Wagon." It was an old fashioned place that sold old fashioned food. One food critic described the Little Wagon menu as "1950 School Hot Lunch."

We didn't go there just for the food, but the folks who dropped in for the hot beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy. Guys like former Vice President Walter Mondale, Viking footballer Bob Lurtsema. One of my favorite regulars had to stoop over to get in the front door.

That would be George Mikan, who 30 years earlier had made history right around the corner playing for the Lakers at the Old Armory. One noon, Mikan sat at our table when someone asked. How much money did you make back then on endorsements, George? You know, like shoes, that kind of stuff.

"We didn't make anything," replied the Hall of Famer. But if we wore one company's shoes, they gave them to us. Free."

This kind of story makes you yearn for the Good Old Days. Another way to begin yearning is to read a 2007 book just issued in paperback. It's "Mr. Basketball," by Michael Schumacher (University if Minnesota Press, $18.95 paper), the life story of George Mikan, his career at DePaul, with various teams, the Lakers, and his life thereafter. Life was not kind to Mikan in his later years as he was ravaged by diabetes and unsuccessful business ventures. When he died, Shaquille O'Neal paid for the big man's funeral, saying, "Without George Mikan, there'd be no me."

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Contact him at 715.426.9554.