Top 10 Biographies (or Autobiographies) to Inspire You in Your Work

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When I was a kid, my parents used to hang out at a neighborhood bar on the weekends. Usually that meant that their four children would hang out there too. I know that sounds a bit questionable, but I have to say, it wasn’t all bad. This particular watering hole was the only bar I’ve ever known to have a candy counter at the end of all the taps. After we’d been there for a while, and my dad was in--er--good spirits, the four of us were permitted to point out a few sweets we desired. The proprietor would then deposit our selections into a tiny brown “poke”—each our own bag of candy. We would sit in our very own booth--shaking bottles of root beer until the foam spilled over the sides—clutching that little brown bag of candy like life depended on it.

My memories of that establishment grow dim with the years, but one still burns strong in my mind: Above our favorite booth was a huge monochromatic print with an American Indian on it. Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins said the words across the bottom of the print. I used to sit and puzzle over that print, wondering what it really meant.

I don’t take my children to the bar. (I think it’s against the law). But I do try to teach them the lesson of the moccasins. One way I have found to be effective in passing the wisdom of this Native American proverb along is to share stories with them. We share a lot of stories, but I always try to include a few true ones. Real stories, about real people. Something about the knowledge that the story really happened impresses them more than just about anything.

That’s what biographies and autobiographies do for me—they allow me to walk in someone else’s shoes. It's amazing how the view changes from the feet up. That’s why I asked my panel of experts (again) to help me compile a list of great biographies and autobiographies for you. You know what they say: If the moccasins fit…

Well, here’s our list for you, hope it helps with your shopping!

1. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. I by Mark Twain

When Mark Twain penned his autobiography, he instructed that it not to be published until 100 years after his death. If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will. This famous curmudgeon writes as unapologetically as he lived—sharing stories from his life in a very untraditional autobiographical format—rambling through his experiences like an old man sharing memories with friends on the back porch. This hefty volume is the first in a series of three and offers a trilogy of gift opportunities for the literary curmudgeon on your Christmas list.

2. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the twentieth century’s most inspiring and intriguing theologians. Metaxas gives a comprehensive review of his early life, as well as his courageous resistance to Nazism during one of history's darkest times. I’m really looking forward to this one.

3. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela: With Connections by Nelson Mandela

Began in 1975 during his 27 year imprisonment, much of this book was written in secret. Mandela speaks with candor about the political struggle for freedom that characterized much of his life and the personal sacrifices he suffered as a result of his dedication to his people. Perhaps the most compelling mystery this book sheds light on is how Mandela maintained his generous spirit through experiences that would embitter the kindest of souls.

4. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Well respected biographer Walter Isaacson captures the essence of this founding father in his detailed account of Benjamin Franklin’s life. Isaacson refers to Franklin as “the most accomplished American of his age”, despite an honest portrayal of the politicians peculiarities and shortcomings in his volume. A good read to help one appreciate the multi-dimensioned nature of this brilliant man.

5. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

Editor of such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, Max Perkins maintained that he helped his authors “find the best” in themselves. Berg provides a peek into the personal and professional life of a legendary figure in American publishing, as well as insight into the lives of the well-known names he worked with.

6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old, African American mother of five from Baltimore who died of an aggressive cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her took tissue samples from her for research. Research from this tissue led to medical breakthroughs from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. Skloot tells a story of medical science, exploitation, racism and loss.

7. Jung: A Biography by Deirdre Bair

One of the fathers of modern psychology and inventor of such concepts as introversion, extroversion, and the collective unconscious, Carl Jung’s character has been much debated over the years. Deirdre Bair provides and extensive look at the legendary analyst’s formative years and professional development and sheds light on why he is widely regarded as one of our great minds. A good read for the deep thinker on your list.

8. Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon

This book has sparked some feuds of its own between Dickinson buffs. Gordon suggests a diagnosis of Dickinson's mysterious illness that not all agree with. Controversies aside, if you have an Emily Dickinson fan on your Christmas list, this book is sure to please.

9. Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Women Behind the Legend by John E. Miller

This one comes highly recommended by my mother-in-law, who is an expert in all things Little House. If you have someone on your list that grew up reading the Little House books, mom assures me this is a must for under the Christmas tree.

10. To Fly: The Story of the Wright Brothers by Wendie Old, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker.

Okay, so this is a children’s book. But it’s one of my favorites. If you read this post, you may have guessed that I think the Wright brothers rock. What better way to teach kids that dreaming isn’t always a waste of time? The story of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s relentless pursuit of flight just might encourage our youngest tinkerers to be the next generation of great inventors. Widgets

Photo by jorjah-b, used with permission.