It’s All About Me – Booking Through Thursday

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Deb’s question today is: Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

I’m not sure I can decide which I prefer.

I read both biographies and autobiographies and they both have their pros and cons. Both can be biased and written to present a certain portrait, either flattering or otherwise. Biographers are trying to reconstruct a person’s life from different sources, including letters, diaries, and personal accounts. The end result may seem as if it is factual, but it is an interpretation and quasi-fictional. I don’t like biographies that make general assumptions about a person’s thoughts and motives based on speculation and the author’s own views and impressions.

Inevitably neither a biography nor an autobiography can retell the whole of a person’s life so there has to be a selection and the skill is deciding what to include and what to leave out. This does of course mean that secrets/events a person doesn’t want reveal may be revealed by a biographer with a particular axe to grind or be left out to paint a more flattering portrait.

A good example of a biography is Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin. It’s well researched, detailed, based on documentary evidence such as diaries and Jane Austen’s own letters.

Memoirs are what a person remembers about their life. Generally they’re more about a particular part of a life rather than the whole. I’ve recently read Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, which is a good example of an autobiography/memoir. It won the Costa Biography Award in 2008 and I think the judges comment sums up what makes a good autobiography/biography:

A perfect memoir of old age – candid, detailed, charming, totally lacking in self-pity or sentimentality and, above all, beautifully, beautifully written.


9 thoughts on “It’s All About Me – Booking Through Thursday

  1. I was surprised, after reading a memoir that I liked quite a bit, to see all the reviews in which readers doubted the events described actually took place as reported by the author! But it seems to me that the point is *how* the memoirist remembers is just as important because it represents reality for that person. It’s an interesting subject!


  2. I generally find them totally different animals. A biography is usually the world looking at the subject, while an autobiography is the subject looking at their world. I love to read about their life and times as they experienced it and remember it.


  3. Great post Margaret…I lean more towards the autobiography myself. Mainly because I want to hear the story straight from the person who lived it. I recently listened to and reviewed Patrick Swayze’s new audiobook and LOVED it. It was made even better because he narrated it himself.


  4. How appropriate that I should receive a note from my library today that the copy of Diana Athill’s “Somewhere Towards the End” is ready for me to be picked up. I had read your review and again I am reminded that how much I am looking forward to read this book. I enjoy cross references of biographies and autobiographies myself when I want to know more about someone as I have the impression to know the person from different angles that way. I do agree with you too that when a biographer takes liberties on assuming certain things it sounds to me more like gossip and a bit of a waste of my time to speculate.
    It is going to be a first for me to read the memoir of an author before reading any of their other books. I usually go the other way around. It is all your fault Margaret. ahahha


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