Why I read biographies

A typical biography relying upon individuals’ notorious memories and the anecdotes they’ve invented contains a high degree of fiction, yet is considered ‘nonfiction.Joyce Carol Oates

I never wanted to do biography just to tell the life of a famous man. I always wanted to use the life of a man to examine political power, because democracy shapes our lives. Robert Caro

Biography – a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified. Jose Ortega y Gasset

Biography is, simply, the orphan of academia. Nigel Hamilton


I am an avid reader of biographies. What attracts me to them? I love reading about familiar people, but also those I had never heard about before. There are biographers who specialise in hatchet jobs; the American Kitty Kelley comes to mind. She is well-known for her unauthorised biographies of Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, the British royal family, the Bush family and Oprah Winfrey. I have to confess that I did buy a copy of The Royals, which was banned in the UK, in Spain. Before taking it to my mum, I did read it myself, and I have to admit it was a page-turner. Generally I don’t go in for the type of biography that just aims for the jugular . Nevertheless, I don’t want a hagiography – I don’t believe in heroes – I prefer the warts and all approach. I like the dirt, but there needs to be some attempt to bring perspective to the life of the subject In this sense I really enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of Steve Jobs, which I thought got the delicate balance mostly right.

I think I do prefer biographies over autobiographies, as I think the latter can be self-serving. On the other hand you do get a peek into the person’s head. You hear their rationale for the life they lived. But sometimes self-knowledge can be lacking. A business leader may have done a brilliant job with their company, but it doesn’t mean that they will be able to provide an insightful analysis of why they were successful. This is why I tend to prefer the outside perspective. But this has its limitations too – they were not there when the events took place Of course, if I have enough time I like to read both. Even then, you are highly unlikely to find the one definitive version of the truth of what really happened. I’ll have to do another post about faking it for biographies.

We tend to use memoir and autobiography interchangeably.  Indeed, Amazon and many high street bookshops place them in the same category. However, they are quite different. The dummies.com website has a handy summary of these differences:

An autobiography

Focuses on the trajectory of an entire life

Starts at the beginning and progresses chronologically to the end

Feels more like a historical document; tons of fact-checking and very specific dates/information

Strives for factual, historical truths

Typically is written by famous people

A memoir

Focuses on a key aspect, theme, event, or choice in a life

Starts anywhere and can deftly move around in time and place

Feels more personal; less intense fact-checking

Strives for emotional truths

Can be written by anyone

So what are my favourite biographical genres? Well, the Amazon website includes Artists, Architects & Photographers, Business & Finance, Film, Television & Music, Historical, Novelists Poets & Playwrights, Political, Sport, Tragic Life Stories, True Crime and War & Espionage. Historical is undoubtedly my favourite. There are so many historical figures whose lives fascinate me. In fact, they don’t have to be important figures – the lives of ordinary people caught up in historical events. A curious genre is that of the biographies/ autobiographies which are about things, not people. I do enjoy this conceit and here are a few relevant examples:

The Universe A Biography John Gribbin

The Emperor of All Maladies A Biography of Cancer Mukherjee Siddhartha

Jerusalem The Biography Simon Sebag-Montefiore

Money The Unauthorized Biography Felix Martin

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World Mark Kurlansky

There is a genre which I have little time for – the celebrity memoir. Katie Price, a celebrity in the UK, is apparently on her sixth. It reminds of the joke from the Spanish equivalent of Spitting Image about a footballer publishing his second autobiography: Raul – the only person to have written more books than he has read. I don’t care much for this type of sporting biography, but there are others which are well reading. The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s expose of Lance Armstrong’s machinations was a fascinating look at the world of professional cycling. Of course Hamilton is another player in the scandal who is trying to show his behaviour in the most favourable light.  To interest me a book has to show me the life and times of the protagonist. But they do have some rather naff titles, often involving wordplay. Here are a few of my favourites:

Camp David David Walliams

Don’t Hassel the Hoff David Hasselhoff

I Am Not Spock  Leonard Nimoy  The follow-up was called  rather confusingly I Am Spock.

Losing My Virginity Richard Branson

My Booky Wook  Russell Brand

sTORI Telling Tori Spelling The Beverly Hills, 90210 star’s sequel was called Uncharted TerriTori.

The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz Ron Jeremy, a famous porn star I’ve been told.

Young Winstone Ray Winstone

Some times biographies can go into a lot of detail. I am currently reading Le Corbusier: A Life by Nicholas Fox Weber. The book about the Swiss-born architect and urbanist has 848 pages and I have to admit that I’m struggling. It’s a bit too much information. But he is the master of brevity compared to others. We have Robert Caro and his massive unfinished project about the life of Lyndon Johnson. In 1982 Caro published The Path to Power, which was supposed to be the first of a trilogy about LBJ. This was followed by Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate (2002), and The Passage of Power (2012). But there is more. The fifth and final volume has yet to be published will cover Vietnam, the Great Society and civil rights era, his decision not to run again in 1968, and his life after the presidency. I know these are critically acclaimed books, but life is too short to read the more than 3,000 pages he has published so far. All I can say is thank God that cryonics hasn’t been used successfully. Earlier this year the biographer Norman Sherry died. After being named as Graham Greene’s official biographer in 1974 he published three volumes in 1989, 1994 and 1999 respectively. Exasperated by the slow progress of Sherry Greene prophesised:

“I will live to see your first volume, but not your second. And you will not live to see the third.” In the end two of Greene’s three predictions came true, but Sherry did live long enough to see his project through.

I will finish with a list of tern excellent biographies/autobiographies/memoirs that I have read in the last twenty years or so:

  1. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly Anthony Bourdain
  2. Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir Frank McCourt
  3. Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela
  4. Steve Jobs Walter Isaacson
  5. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China Jung Chang
  6. Endgame Frank Brady  (Bobby Fischer)
  7. London : The Biography  Peter Ackroyd
  8. In Plain Sight The Life and Lies of Jimmy Saville Dan Davies
  9. Goddess of the Market Jennifer Burns  (Ayn Rand )
  10. Churchill Roy Jenkins

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