On Biography

In the U.S., Biographer's Day is observed every May 16th, commemorating a special event: the meeting of poet, editor, and essayist Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, his biographer. The result of that meeting was published in 1763.

Let's take a closer look at a favorite genre. Biographies and autobiographies contain several essential elements.

First, we want to know how and where the story starts.

What was the original name of the subject? Where and when were they born?

The stories typically take a look at their personal life. Where did they grow up? Who and what were significant influences? A focus on education generally provides a smooth segue to occupation and areas of achievement. What important life experiences did they encounter in adult life? Finally, what was their significance to their field, and how did they impact others?

For readers interested in a well-rounded picture of a person, it can be interesting to read both biographies and an autobiography, if it's available. Each tells the story, or part of the story, of a person's life. How consistent are those differing points of view? How does a biographer see the subject in certain pivotal events? How does the subject wish for others to see them?

Who Are You Reading?

When reading biographies, some of us tend to binge. (Actually, that could be true of readers of any genre, I guess.) We may start with someone in the news and move on to someone who seemed significant in the telling of that story. We may do the same with major-- or minor --  figures from the past.

Of course, there is the category of fiction “based on” to explore as well. These stories of people or groups of people are closely based on history but fictionalized for the reader, sometimes because the identities of the actual people can’t be identified, and have been lost in the vastness of time. For example, Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston didn’t reach many readers for decades after it was written.

Works such as these, sometimes called memoirs, can be moving, inspiring, frightening, or just informative and interesting, depending on your view of the person about whom you are reading. And you can choose from any category of people or field of endeavor. What are you interested in? Find a leader or innovator and read about them, often in their own words. You might find that your view of that field or period changes significantly based on the perspective of the subject of the book.

Other Ways to Get Started

Still not sure who to read up on? We did a  search for "Pulitzer Prize winning biographies," which quickly led us to  some spectacular-looking volumes:

Truman  by David McCullough

The Dead are Arising: The Life of  Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne not only won a 2021 Pulitzer but was also awarded the National Book Award and the New York Times Notable Book of 2020.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of Robert J. Oppenheimer
by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

For lovers of classic rock, there's Lennon, Dylan, Alice, and Jesus: The Spiritual Biography of Rock and Roll.

An author friend on Twitter  (another place to find good reads) had high praise for  Finding Me: A Memoir by  Viola Davis. which, shortly after its release, became a Harpers Bazaar Best Book.

And here's a list of titles published by members of Women Writing Women's Lives.

Want to learn how to write a biography? Or improve what you've been writing? There are lots of resources for that effort, including How to Write a Biography which is brilliantly related to learning modules here.