Biographical writing as we know it today first began with The Life of Samuel Johnson, written by James Boswell first published in 1791. The two men met on May 16, 1763, which is why this date was chosen for Biographers Day.
The word biography comes from the Greek, bio, meaning life, and graphe [gra fay] meaning writing. It, of course, refers to writing about someone else’s life, not one’s own. However, it is not a matter of simply stating facts. Every biography has a viewpoint. The author looks at another’s life through the lens of questions he or she wants answered (why did he make that decision?), an evaluation of a life (this is why I think she is important), to show someone’s place in history (he was a perfect icon of the 1400s because…), or any number of other reasons. The author isn’t copying a diary, but telling a story – hopefully a true one, but definitely from his or her point of view.
Biographies are popular. Just go to biography.com and you can find dozens or likely hundreds of short bios about people by name or in subject areas, such as History & Culture, Celebrity, In the News, and others. As I write this, they are featuring commencement speeches. Their links to people are such divergent folks as Kim Jong-un, James Comey, Melissa McCarthy, and Jim Parsons. If you go to the people page and put in, for instance, born May 16, it will give several returns, one of which is “People born May 16,” so you see who was born on a particular day. Today happens to be William Seward, Liberace, Janet Jackson, Studs Terkel, Pierce Brosnan, and Tori Spelling, among others.
So here’s your invitation to go read about someone who you admire (or the opposite), or have been curious about. It’s the perfect day to do so!
Quotes about biography (notice how many are sexist)
No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.–Thomas Carlyle
Biography should be written by an acute enemy.–Arthur Balfour
If you’re doing a biography, you try to stay as accurate as possible to reality. But you really don’t know what was going on in the person’s mind. You just know what was going on in the minds of people around him.–Clint Eastwood
I am trying to make clear through my writing something which I believe: that biography- history in general- can be literature in the deepest and highest sense of that term.–Robert Caro
Biography can be the most middle-class of all forms, the judgment of little people avenging themselves on the great.–Edmund White
Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.–Benjamin Disraeli
You can use a biography to examine political power, but only if you pick the right guy.–Robert Caro
Discretion is not the better part of biography.–Lytton Strachey
Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.–Carter G.–Woodson
I never wanted to do biography just to tell the life of a famous man. I always wanted to use the life of a man to examine political power, because democracy shapes our lives.–Robert Caro
If you read enough biography and history, you learn how people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar situations or patterns in the past. It doesn’t give you a template of answers, but it does help you refine the questions you have to ask yourself.–James Mattis
A great writer requires a great biography, and a great biography must tell the truth.–George Packer
When I’m dead, somebody can write my biography.–Giorgio Moroder
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