“Why Read Biography?”

When I was in grade school we had to write reports on books with various topics and styles each year. Teachers were trying to make sure we didn’t stick to our preferred genres, but ventured out into other types of reading. I loved fiction and would have happily read only that, but I dutifully read from the list of other kinds of books each year. As a result, I read a biography each year as a kid. Otherwise I don’t think I would have been interested. After that required reading, I rarely ever picked up, much less read a biography.

Typical of what I read was a volume of the Landmark History Series, a story of Molly Pitcher, brave Revolutionary War heroine. (I just read about her and learned there was no such person!) Biographies for kids were, I think, meant to inspire us in the 1950’s to pursue patriotic, heroic, brave and outstanding lives. They didn’t present a rounded picture of anyone, and they seemed more propaganda than history. I made the mistake of never considering that adult biographies might be different, especially ones written in the last 40 years.

I read many autobiographies and memoirs throughout my adult years. At least they were first hand accounts, however skewed through the lens of the writer. But recently I noticed that I have read three lengthy biographies this year, the ones pictured above. What changed? I have become old and am intrigued with the long arc of another person’s life. I no longer demand simplistic accounts of people who have made a mark on their worlds. Instead I crave the complex reality of a long life with its failures and successes. A good biographer, working with countless primary sources, attempts to present such a story.

To all my friends who asked me over the years why I didn’t read biographies, this post stands as an answer. You were right. They are fascinating and I am trying to catch up with all of you. 600 pages at a time!

34 thoughts on ““Why Read Biography?”

  1. I avoid autobiographies, as they tend to flatter the subject, and are rarely written my them. But I have read many biographies of famous historical figures, including the phone-book deep ‘Cromwell’, by Antonia Fraser, at almost 600 pages long.
    I think you have to be rather interested in his life to get through it. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Well I seem to be reading phone book deep books. I am always interested in Cromwell. My umpteenth great grandfather fought with him and was “awarded” a large estate in Ireland as a reward. It stayed in the family for a couple of hundred years, making me part of the dread Anglo-Irish.

        1. I would have thought that he would be better regarded since he turned things upside down. Of course the reaction to the Brexit situation suggests people are often averse to change!

      1. Let me see. I read three of his books: A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence and Encore Provence. They are all good. He died last January 18, 2018. I blogged about it here💜

  2. When I am intrigued by a life, I want to know the early influences, the back story, the motivation. I like the biographies which include well documented facts and stories

  3. You make some great points in your post, Elizabeth – you’re right about how biographies have evolved in the last 40 years; and also, how, particularly as we mature and collect our own repertoire of complex life experiences, we want to read biographies and non-fiction works that really illustrate that full, complicated spectrum of life – I know I do. I still enjoy fiction, but, for about the last 10 years, I’ve really read a lot of memoirs and non-fiction books. Maybe in 2020 I will challenge myself to read one or two biographies – it’s hard to find one that isn’t 600 pages or more! I hold good biographers in high esteem.

  4. I must be honest, Elizabeth, I love to read everything. I have very wide tastes in literature. This week I have read a murder mystery, a poetry book, a memoir and an anthology of short memoirs. All excellent.

  5. The only auto/biography I read from start to finish so far is of Toussaint L’Overture. I don’t think biographies were a part of required reading in Jamaica. Instead, we had to do one West Indian novel/play, one American one (often African American) and then a British one (usually Shakespeare).

    1. Having to read them as a child didn’t make them appealing. I am glad that I enjoy them finally. I love learning what is required reading around the world. When do you relocate,by the way?

      1. Haha, I don’t think it would make it appealing to me either. I like nonfiction, but on specific topics. All year, I’ve been reading about mortgages, tiny houses and living in homes on wheels!

        Move date is set for spring. It will mostly likely be late April or very early May as I want to get back and set up in time for the spring music festival. I went to the fall one when I was out there and promised I’d make it back in time to actually camp this time! I think the festival date is the 14th to the 18th.

        1. Exactly where I visited! That’s why I was out there. I had picked it based on statistical data and needed to see how it lived up to it in the flesh. So, we’ll be in the Joshua Tree area in the Mojave Desert. 🙃

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