Who doesn’t like a great story about a great life? Well, almost no one. That is why biographies and autobiographies have always been and continue to be big sellers. I have read many bios over the years, but my first one was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I read it for a book report in grammar school. Years later I saw the movie with Cicely Tyson and that as one of the earliest moments of my life when I was aware of the snobbish feeling of having read a book that lesser people will only experience through the lesser medium of film. If that feeling is a sin, I apologize for it, but it is still something I enjoy, for one of my favorite lines ever is, “But in the book . . .”
Sadly for Ernest J. Gaines, his history of Jane Pittman does not make my list of top biographies because I later tragically learned that there is no real Jane Pittman, so there is no autobiography. The whole thing was a novel under the guise of false pretenses, which is very clever way to fool a 5th grader.
You can be sure, though, that my top three biographies are legitimate.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Eric Metaxas
Metaxas is simply one of the better writers in the world right now, Christian or otherwise. This exhaustive biography of the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer brings the background of a familiar story to life. It is inspiring, convicting, and deeply moving. Bonhoeffer’s story itself is great, but Metaxas gentle and slowly growing drumbeat to rising action accentuates the tragedy of Bonhoeffer’s death.
Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry
Of all the biographies I’ve read, this is probably the thinnest. The truth is we don’t have a lot of information about Crazy Horse, the famed Sioux warrior, but that doesn’t stop McMurtry from making the most of what we do know. He lays out the lies and betrayal of the United States, the diabolical conundrum before the Sioux and other native peoples, and the inevitable sacrfices of culture that come with the passage of time.
I have another reason for loving this book. McMurtry relates the devastating toll of relying upon white people with the example of fishing hooks. For generations past, Native Americans made fishhooks from bone. When they started trading with white people, they began to use metal fishing hooks. A generation later, and only a generation later, when conflict arose between the two, the Sioux went hungry because they had already forgotten how to make fishing hooks from bone. All it takes is one generation for institutional memory and competency to vanish.
I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This, Bob Newart
Memoir would be a better word for this than biography. Since I will not be having a memoir section, this will have to do. Celebrities have memoirs, and Bob Newhart is a celebrity.
Shouldn’t is a very funny book, but that is not the only reason I love it. I love it because it illustrates that success isn’t always instant and doesn’t always happen when we are young. In this memoir Newhart details how it was relatively late in life before he had any real success at all in entertainment. That is encouraging to us all, but especially those of us who are over forty and wondering if the best is not already behind us.
So these are my three top biographies. What three biographies do you recommend as the best?