Biographies and Autobiographies: Lives Through A Microscope

By Carole Reedy

Biographies and autobiographies tell us the story of a person’s life. Like fiction, the quality that makes a particular life a good read isn’t the action or adventure, but the writer’s ability to offer an intimate view of another human being: their motivations, desires, habits, and quirks. This is especially challenging when delving into the life of an artist.

The biographies recommended here were chosen because their authors take a careful look into the lives of famous people so readers can understand more about them and their contributions to history and the arts.

The first modern biography was a work that set the standard for the evolution of the genre.

James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. Said to be the greatest biography written in the English language at that time (1791), Boswell’s work was unique in its level of research–involving archival study, eye-witness accounts, and interviews–as well as its intimate approach. Thus it has proven to be a model for today’s biographies.

The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin gifts us with the life story of Samuel Pepys. Ironically, Pepys is most famous for the diary he kept as a young man from 1660 to 1669, considered a primary source for the history of the English Restoration period. Pepys was an eyewitness to such historical events as the Great Fire and Great Plague of London. Tomalin’s biography is based not only on Pepys’ own diaries, but also on exhaustive research that gives us a taste of Pepys’ private life. It comes highly recommended by many serious readers.

Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpoint (no relation to Philip) is a valuation of the man who many regard as most deserving of the next Nobel Prize for Literature. Philip Roth has given us 60 years of brilliant writing in the novel form. From Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint to The Human Stain and American Pastoral, Roth outdid himself every step of the way, making him one of the best chroniclers of life in the US in the second half of the 20th century. Pierpoint’s approach to this biography is to look at the artist’s life through his works. Any lover of Roth’s contributions to the world of literature will inhale this book. Roth fans may also want to read his autobiographical work, The Facts.

Wilder Shores of Love (1954) by Leslie Branch is an account of the lives of four 19th century women who left the industrialized West for Arabia, thus setting the course for female freedom long before it was considered a popular cause. A friend confessed that she was so enamored of this book that for the first time in her life she couldn’t bear to return it to the library. Now that’s a fine recommendation, don’t you think?

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (author of the bestseller Seabiscuit) is the story of a man who retains his selfhood and humanity despite a series of catastrophes he suffers over the years. The author describes her research into this story: “That first conversation with Louie was a pivot point in my life. Fascinated by his experiences, and the mystery of how a man could overcome so much, I began a seven-year journey through his story. I found it in diaries, letters, and unpublished memoirs; in the memories of his family and friends, fellow Olympians, former American airmen and Japanese veterans; in forgotten papers in archives as far-flung as Oslo and Canberra. Along the way, there were staggering surprises, and Louie’s unlikely, inspiring story came alive for me. It is a tale of daring, defiance, persistence, ingenuity, and the ferocious will of a man who refused to be broken.” The film version, directed by Angela Jolie, is due out next year.

A few recommendations from avid readers:

Mexicophiles will appreciate Zapata and the Mexican Revolution by John Womack, Jr. and Life in Mexico, The Letters of Fanny Calderon de la Barca, a look at Mexico through the eyes of a Scottish lass (who emigrates to the US) as she travels through Mexico from 1839 to 1842 with her Spanish-diplomat husband. Her commentary covers everything from social criticism to the challenges of everyday life.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown comes recommended by a friend who normally gobbles up fiction. She says: ”The most interesting part for me was the occasional sidebars on what was happening in Germany at that time and the way the US and others averted their eyes from reality, as well as the description of life for so many during the depression era.”

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset, recommended by another reader, offers a look at Anne’s role as a woman in politics. “I enjoyed this book not only for chronicling the resilience of a female ruler who endured many tragedies, including 17 miscarriages and stillbirths in as many years, but also focusing on her complex relationship with Duchess Sara Churchill. It’s the first historical bio I can remember that spent some time on the personal and political interplay between powerful women at a time in the early days of the 18th century when there weren’t that many such women around.”

Looking for a good book for your daughter or granddaughter (9 to 13 years old)? Pick up a copy of Girl’s Research: Amazing Tales of Female Scientists by Jennifer Phillips from her Girl’s Rock series. Within its pages you’ll find stories of female scientists, their accomplishments, and the barriers they broke.

Let me end by expressing thanks to the friends who helped me with suggestions for this column. As regular readers of THE EYE have noticed, my preference lies with fiction. Writing about biographies, however, has sparked my interest in the genre, and I hope the same for you.