I have been reading and discussing the attraction of short well packages works on important subjects. The Penguin Lives Series had such potential. In fact I enjoyed Paul Johnson’s Napoleon for all of those reasons: short, accesible, readable, yet scholarly.
Allen Barra discusses the demise of the series in Salon Books. In fact, he views Johnson’s Napoleon as an example of what was right about the series but points to Jane Smiley’s portrait of Chalres Dickens as the worst.
I suppose this is the danger of such an enterprise – if you don’t get the author right or the author flubs it the potential fascinating short portrait becomes a useless rehash. If you are too bland or to outrageous the form doesn’t work.
Personally, I think writing a short and fresh history or biography would be a daunting task. I have always felt it is easier to right a detailed and in-depth history of a small subject than it is to write a brief but insightful work on a braod subject.
Oh, well nothing ventured nothing gained.