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Things learned by reading biographies
February 14, 2012 8:38 AM   Subscribe

How did reading a biography learn you a valuable lesson, help you gain a crucial insight, change your worldview or impact you in some other, non-trivial way?

There are several AskMes about biographies but I'm more interested in what people have learned from them beyond the details of the biographee's life.
posted by Foci for Analysis to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
...more like several biographies really, but reading Outliers by Malcom Gladwell really showed me a lot about the effort behind "Genius" "overnight successes" or things we believe were just "people being in the right place at the right time", seeing the analysis of 10,000 hours of sheer hard graft behind Mozart, the Beatles, etc., gave me a new understanding of how critical application and graft are to the mastery of any human endeavour.
From a personal perspective it answered my innate discomfort with "some people are just plain lucky" and "you have a gift for languages, I couldn't possibly learn/speak X, Y Z" that I hear a lot here in the UK.
It re-emphasised the importance of personal responsibility and bloody hard work after a period when certain things (I believed) "came easy to me" like said language acquisition.
posted by Wilder at 9:02 AM on February 14, 2012


I recently read Peter Martin's biography of James Boswell, who wrote the famous Life of Johnson and was also a Scottish advocate (lawyer/barrister).

The book was fascinating to me, particularly its account of Boswell's emotional misery, combined with his fumbling, endearing, earnest attempts to connect with other people; his unwillingness despite his depression to ever give up or count himself out, always forging on with his projects despite his seemingly paralyzing self-doubt; and the way his dogged pursuit of friendship with other people ennobled a life that would otherwise be considered quite miserable and debauched.

I took away from Boswell's life the feeling that it's worth appearing foolish in your efforts to connect with other people, and that one's efforts to pursue a life project may bear fruit even if your life feels very dark and pointless while you're making those efforts.
posted by jayder at 9:13 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read Midge Ure's autobiography while I was going through cancer treatment last year. It's a pretty simple, straightforward entry in the "pop culture figure tells his life story" genre; I had originally got it mostly to get the inside scoop on his main band, Ultravox, and any good backstage dirt on the Band Aid and Live Aid projects. I was surprised by how moving and inspiring I found it, especially his grace, humility, humor, and resilience in the face of pretty massive setbacks (growing up in poverty; losing everything in not one but two house fires; alcoholism that nearly cost him his family) and his commitment to doing creative work for its own pleasure, regardless of the perception of him in the industry as a has-been.

Immediately after reading it, I had this very clear inspiration that surviving cancer made me realize how much I really wanted to get back to my own creative writing, which I'd given up several years earlier. And once I'd opened my mind back up to that possibility, two big ideas for novels presented themselves in fairly rapid succession, one of which I'm in the middle of writing right now. I am almost positive that wouldn't be the case if I hadn't read his book.
posted by scody at 9:21 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Merle Miller's biography of Harry Truman. Truman found ideas and solutions to life situations that he could use in his Presidency, in the old classics, histories, biographies. Personally, I found Marcus Aurelius' Meditations very valuable in how I look at life. A lot of the notions in that tiny book pre-date the current interest in meditation/mindfulness/Buddhism.
posted by PickeringPete at 9:56 AM on February 14, 2012


Alexander the Great had only been described to me in near god-like terms throughout school. The book Alexander of Macedon is an amazing biography of the man, and it refuses to excuse or paint over his very dark sides (the destruction of Thebes, his killing of Black Cleitus and the burning of Persepolis).

It's a very solid biography of a man who completely changed the world in less than a decade and died at such a young age that admirers and critics can't help but wonder if he would have taken the whole world had he survived past 33.

His story is also one that U.S. government officials should have considered when planning the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq - namely, that even to Alexander these places were nearly impossible to conquer and required unimaginable planning.
posted by glaucon at 10:00 AM on February 14, 2012


I find it incredibly rewarding to read autobiographies of people who survived the Holocaust. Primo Levi wrote several books about his experiences in Auschwitz and his struggles to return home to Italy after the war. At one point, he's taken to a freezing prison camp in northern Denmark and out in the snow one day he and some fellow prisoners dig up some raw, frozen potatoes and it's the most food they've had for weeks, even though they can barely bite into or digest these rock-like vegetables. When I'm having a hard day in my suburban cubicle farm, I think of that.
posted by mattbucher at 11:09 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Madeleine L'Engle wrote a memoir of her marriage, called "A Two-Part Invention", after her husband's death. Basically it was a love song to their long life together.

The book had a long, detailed first section about her upbringing and his, and their young adulthoods separately and together, and their careers as actors (travel! drama! glamour!) and their courtship and so on and so on.

The book had a long, detailed, lovingly rendered section about their careers (including her development as a writer of classic fantasy kid lit, including of course "A Wrinkle in Time", and his experience as an actor on a long-running soap opera), their mature marriage, his diagnosis with cancer, his illness and death, her experience of coping with that afterward.

The book had a very brief section about the years the spent raising children and running a general store in a small town in New England.

What I learned: life is long and raising children is intense and consuming. That so much of one's self is poured into the experience of bringing up kids and just turning the wheel during parenthood, that there's not a whole lot left during that time. But that life is long! And when those intense responsibilities lessen, there is still so much opportunity to live one's life for oneself....

Put the whole kid thing in perspective, I tell you.
posted by Sublimity at 11:13 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Power Broker, Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, sort of landed for me just how much a single person can accomplish. This is in no way an endorsement of the methods or the man.
posted by troywestfield at 11:33 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I do a lot of writing and I've had some projects and collaborations go awry because I'm pretty insane about getting things done and people are flaky and want to fart around rather than doing things. So I was reading about how Kobe Bryant is an insane workaholic in The Art of a Beautiful Game (best basketball book I've ever read, by the way). And there was a line to the effect of, "Kobe had problems until he finally figured out that it was impossible for people to care as much as he did. They cared as much as they could and did the best they could, but they simply couldn't put as much into the game as he could.

Not that I think I'm as good as Kobe, but that really helped me work with people a lot and be a little more tolerant when I'm collaborating.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:36 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Closest Companion, the diaries of Margaret "Daisy" Suckley* edited by Geoffrey Ward, helped me a lot with my unconventional relationship with someone who died on 9/11.

*Daisy was a distant cousin of FDR, was very close to him, and anticipated non-romantically living with him at Top Cottage after he left office.

I was especially moved by passages on carrying on with life that she wrote immediately after FDR's death when the end of the war was imminent.

A movie is being made about Daisy and FDR, with Bill Murray (!) as FDR and Laura Linney as Daisy. God, I hope it will be respectful.
posted by jgirl at 2:00 PM on February 14, 2012


From reading a wide range of biographies and memoirs by all sorts of different people, I've learned that, underneath all the details of life, people are all pretty much the same. And there are many different ways to live a good life. Lives that look wonderful on the outside can be miserable inside, and lives that look pathetic on the outside can be all sorts of wondrous on the inside.

As a more specific example, from Temple Grandin's books I learned that autism and other ways of being non-neurotypical are not necessarily defects that we should always be trying to fix.
posted by Corvid at 4:09 PM on February 14, 2012


I read Leonard Mlodinow's memoir/ Richard Feynman biography, Feynman's Rainbow, and had that experience. The story is a lesson in doing what you love and engaging the simple beauty of life. It hit me like a ton of bricks the first time I read it and whenever I need macro-reassurance, I reread it.
posted by thewestinggame at 6:30 PM on February 14, 2012


These have been great answers - lots of thanks to you all!

I love how someone's experiences can have a major impact on how we perceive reality even if we've only read about those experiences. Seems so profound and yet so elusive.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:50 PM on February 14, 2012


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