I have recently gotten more interested in reading memoirs. Great autobiographies can provide a glimpse into people’s lives that biographies cannot. Even the most objective biographer, while their books may be more factually accurate than an autobiography, cannot provide as intimate a picture of a person as someone who is writing about themselves and their own experiences.
For instance, a biographer writing about Winston Churchill can give the facts of his life, present a chronological timeline, and draw conclusions for the reader based on the documents, speeches, and media that Winston left behind. If I want to know about Mr. Churchill, I am interested in reading his own words myself, not the interpretations of others. Autobiographies are valuable to me largely because they are subjective. Nowhere are a person’s successes and shortcomings more visible than in the way they think and write about themselves.
I will be the first to say that there are plenty of boring memoirs out there. But that does not mean that the people who wrote them were boring–only that, for me, the stories of their lives were about subjects that I do not identify with.
That has been the key–finding autobiographical subjects who wrote about the same things that fascinate me. Who asked the questions that I ask. Who lived through experiences that I can relate to. When I read a memoir, I am less interested in knowing what happened to the person as I am in how they felt about the things that happened, and how they went about recording them.
By learning about another person through their self-scrutinizing writing, it is possible to learn about ourselves, whether we have anything in common with the subject or not. Other people are mirrors we can hold up to get a better idea of who we are (and are not). Autobiographies are mirrors whose words do not change. They are a perfect snapshot of who someone was at a given point in time.
So, if you want to find great memoirs to read, I would begin by identifying your own interests, and then seek out books written by people whose interests align with your own. The more you can learn about someone similar to yourself, the more understanding you can gain about your circumstances. This is strength training for your mind.
Don’t feel bad about putting down an autobiography that bores you. You don’t have to get to know anyone, whether you do it in person or through a book.
When you find a memoir that really engages you, you will know it. And if, in that book, the author talks about things they enjoy reading, that is probably a clue for further exploration.