Mark Twain’s method of autobiography was to “start it at no particular time of your life” and “wander at your free will all over your life.” That’s how it went, as he dictated much of the Autobiography of Mark Twain to stenographers, occasionally while sitting in bed in his silk dressing gown. Twain was a born talker: my shelves groan beneath the University of California Press edition of the work, which contains (excluding editorial apparatus) roughly a thousand pages of memoirs in no discernible order, salted with letters, speeches, and newspaper articles Twain threw in. Maybe it should have been titled The Last Practical Joke of Samuel Clemens.

As a reader, do I march through this morass start to finish? Or thumb to the index of volume one and cherry-pick material to spice up my own journalism:...


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