As we turn the pages of history, we are bound to find the names of many personalities – great statesmen, powerful thinkers, gifted artisans – anyone who rose against all hurdles to reach a position that makes them worthy of going down in the annals of history. These are the same people who rose amidst, yet above the commoners to win the hearts of the masses. Then there are those, who forcibly tried to etch their names, without realising that the nib of their merciless might has pierced the page, ruining their name and the book of history forever. But all of them, from free-thinking revolutionaries to cruel dictators, were keen on leaving a legacy that would live long beyond their own lifetime. Some chose to build ornate palaces and enormous forts. However, as Shakespeare articulates in his sonnet ‘Not marble nor the gilded monuments; Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme’; the rest realized the futility of materialistic wealth. They believed in the power of words, and thus began the age of biographies, autobiographies and memoirs.
The most famous ancient autobiography is the Baburnama, a compilation of the journals maintained by Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in the Indian subcontinent. Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography starts with a remarkable preface where he declares: “No matter what sort he is, everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write the story of his own life in his own hand; but no one should venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty.”
While not all of us might want a biography of ourselves written, it is an equally fulfilling experience to read literature that talks about the lives of great people. An account of their lives paints a detailed picture of their humble beginnings, their struggle against hardships and their eventual success. An autobiography is a better option since you can watch a person’s life unfolding through his own eyes. More than anything else, biographies and autobiographies let one understand the thought process of another person; this lets the reader appreciate values such as empathy and critical thinking. For those who do not enjoy reading self-help books, but need a dose of motivation nevertheless, biographies are a great alternative. The following reading list gives a few suggestions to start out with this genre.
The Diary of a Young Girl
Shortly before Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl goes into hiding during World War Two, she receives a diary for her birthday. For the next two years in hiding, her diary becomes her best friend and helps her ride through difficult times. Although this does not fall under the category of a conventional autobiography, this journal makes for an exciting read and captures perfectly the Frank family’s growing fear of the Nazis and gives a very detailed account of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live. The words that lent her support still echo with her innocence and instills in the readers the hope of a better world.
Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character
Nobel-prize winning renowned physicist Richard Feynman released this collection of anecdotes and reminiscences in 1985 which went on to become hugely successful. Most anecdotes were transcribed based on tape-recorded conversations between Richard Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton. The perfect blend of light-hearted instances and ambitious thoughts makes this book an enjoyable read and gives us great insights on Feynman’s spirited personality. A sequel to the above book, ‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’ was also released based on Leighton’s taped conversations.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X, the American revolutionary human rights activist, who is credited largely for his efforts to instill self-esteem in African-Americans, collaborated with journalist Alex Haley to write his autobiography. The autobiography which is based on the many interviews that were taken over a period of two years, was recognised by Time magazine as one of the ten most influential books of the twentieth century. The book depicts powerfully Malcolm X’s radical ideologies of Black Nationalism, pan-Africanism as well as his views on Islam.
When Breath Becomes Air
This is a moving autobiographical book by Dr. Paul Kalanithi, an American neurosurgeon who, in the dawn of his career, is diagnosed with a fatal disease. He starts with his early days, talks about the various milestones in his professional life before he describes the harshness life meted out to him and his helplessness at watching himself fall apart. An extremely fulfilling read, this book instills in readers gratitude and a renewed love for life.
I Too Had a Dream
In this memoir, Dr Verghese Kurien traces his extraordinary journey in realising his dream of empowering the farmers of India. Fondly called the father of the White Revolution, Dr. Kurien played an instrumental role in the development of the Anand Milk Union Limited, better known as Amul, whose business model came to be appreciated worldwide for its sustainability. In this incredible book, he talks about his humble beginnings, his chance meeting with the local farmers’ cooperative and his subsequent work to achieve his vision.
Reading biographies and autobiographies allows one to walk in the footsteps and live the lives of such exemplary individuals. Moreover, they let us learn from their mistakes and widen our outlook towards life in general. If you are convinced to indulge in some bio-bibliophilia but do not yet have the will to read, fret not! The movie buffs can chose to devour biopics, which bring alive the legacy of these visionaries in full colour with scrupulous candour.