Reading Biographies & Autobiographies.

Yesterday I gave a brief review of a German soldier’s memoir, which in my Great War library is one of about a baker’s dozen of works (counting Sassoon’s fictionalized Sherston trilogy as one) of a biographical or autobiographical nature. Today we return to How to Read a Book to find out what Adler and Van Doren have to say about these kinds of works. This is my outline, taken from their chapter on reading history:

How to Read Biography and Autobiography

  1. A narrative account of the life of a person or group of people
    • Understand the purpose
    • Find out the criteria for truth
  2. Kinds of biographies
    • Definitive biography
      • Final, exhaustive, scholarly work
      • Usually about someone important
      • Can’t be written about the living
      • All sources examined
      • Contemporary history researched
      • Not often easy to read
      • Read as history as experienced by the subject
    • Authorized biography
      • Commissioned by heirs or friends of the person
      • Often written about the living
      • Written to shed the best possible light
      • Can be very well researched
      • May be less reliable because of biased sponsorship
      • Is as much about the time in which it was written
    • Ordinary biography
      • Expected to be accurate and factual, even though not exhaustive
      • Gives impression of seeing a real life in its time and place
      • May be written to teach or illustrate moral principles
    • Autobiography
      • Questionable in complete truthfulness
      • About an unfinished life
    • General guidance
      • Don’t just read to find out secrets
      • Pay attention to the message
      • To approach the truth about a person, read as many accounts as possible
      • Read as history and the cause of history
      • Take autobiographies with a grain of salt
      • Don’t argue until you understand what is said
  3. What of it?
    • Can be a cause of action: practical, moral, inspirational
    • Stories of more or less successful lives can help us live

If you haven’t yet become acquainted with How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, please consider doing so. It’s been through several editions, and as far as I know, it’s still in print. I first read it in 1973, and I’m still learning from it.

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