“There is properly no history; only biography.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I never used to read biographies, unless required by school. I remember an assignment in High School where I was supposed to write a report about any person of my choice. Scanning the biography shelves of of my school library, it seemed like I didn’t know any of the names except for founding fathers or movie stars, so I decided to pick a book at random. It was about Aristotle Onassis. Whew! What a life – and what an eye opener for a small prairie-town girl to read about a worldly, multi-millionaire business mogul. It made an impression on me far beyond any history textbook or lecture I heard in the classroom.
For some reason, I didn’t read biographies again until many years later when I picked up my education again after college. Since then, I’ve learned so much! Never mind the occasional factual errors or image distortions, there is so much context surrounding a single person’s life, that we can learn a lot about their place and time. I’ve learned about Tin Pan Alley, the Gilded Age, New England mill towns, the Chicago World Fair, houseboating on the Nile, ranch life in New Mexico, British boarding schools, the Boxer Rebellion in China along with hundreds of other things.
I’ve also learned about the politics, people, technology, customs and concerns of the times these people lived, especially when one life overlaps with another biography I’ve read. It’s a terrific way to learn history. But I have found that one biographer’s interpretation of events does not necessarily match another author’s version. For very controversial figures, such as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt, it’s quite interesting to read and compare conservative vs. liberal leaning biographies, or old vs. new biographies (newer biographies of political leaders have access to newly unclassified documents). I also like to scan the sources they used.
This year, my sons and I were trying to decide what to do for history since we’ve already done a cursory overview of most time periods. I left it up to them what they want to dig into next and they decided to skip around, reading biographies of different people in different times. My oldest son is in love with Shakespeare and theatre in general so he’s captivated with stories about playwrights. My second son is interested in science, business and technology so he’s reading about inventors and entrepreneurs such as Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, the Google founders and Warren Buffett.
I think most people avoid biographies because they’ve only been exposed to those boring commissioned-for-school-libraries type books. Instead, look for well-written labors of love. If the children’s section of your local library is light on biographies, try finding what you want online first then requesting it from your librarian. Teens can often find good books in the adult section, but be aware that means they’ll usually learn all about the love lives of their subject too. Just wait till your 16 year old finds out Ben Franklin’s thoughts on choosing a young vs. an older mistress! It’s probably no worse than what they see in the movies.