Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is a transformative experience. This is particularly true if they favor skyscraper stilettos. However, if you really want to have your perspective rocked, then you’ll gladly take on all the corns and bunions that come from strolling through a good autobiography. Having a person tell their story, their way, often leaves blood and tears on the page of which the author isn’t even aware. Here’s ten such autobiographies that will show you new worlds through the eyes of the people who lived there.
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Going up against hatred and intolerance with peace and love sounds like loading a gun with moonbeams and unicorn dust. But, Martin Luther King, Jr. proved that compassion was an effective tool for change that trumps any violent measure.
This autobiography is unique in that it’s a collection of King’s works, but was not compiled by the man himself. As such, it tells a story that is more collaborative and perhaps more glorified than the humble King might concoct. Whether it would be given his blessing, it undoubtedly marks the civil rights movements of the 1960s and ‘70s so accurately, most readers will squirm at the many uses of the term “negro.” From Rosa Parks and King’s rise as a leader, to his criticism of John F. Kennedy as being nearly identical to Nixon, it’s a point of view not to be missed.
If you’re hoping for a detailed account of the life of famed novelist Ernest Hemmingway, A Moveable Feast isn’t truly that. Rather, it’s a time capsule that uses the slim prose of Hemmingway to transport the reader back into Paris in the 1920s. It tells the account of a young novelist profoundly in love with his wife, in love with language, in love with the city of lights, and surrounded by the literati of the time. One moment he’ll be popping in to gossip with Gertrude Stein, then drinking with F. Scott, followed by lunch with Ezra Pound or joshing with James Joyce.
While this won’t delve into the struggles and mental illness that would mar and ultimately end Hemmingway later in life, it is perhaps the best written autobiography ever put to page. It’s a narrow book, highlighting Hemmingway’s stylized writing, and a master class in brevity that doesn’t ever sacrifice taste and texture.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Most modern readers will be shocked into gape-mouthed stupefaction at many parts of this first chronicle of Maya Angelou’s life story. To begin with, she and her brother Bailey are literally shipped away like packages with tags reading “To whom it may concern,” on their wrists. Somehow, things only get worse from there as these children are exposed to rape and rampant racism.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings isn’t all real world horrors, though. Moreso, it’s about how words and language gave a traumatized young woman the ability to expel the pain that grows inside her, and how she finds liberation by giving her story to others. It shows how even those chained by society’s cruel treatment of race and gender can create a narrative of musical power.
Autobiography of Mark Twain
It requires a special level of cockiness for a man to adopt a nom de plume based on something yelled when checking water depth. Yet, that’s what Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain did. Though most of his fictional writing is based on incisive observations about the world, his autobiography shows a slightly different perspective. Unlike his novel work, which tended to be direct and biting, his autobiography is a meandering array of twists and doglegs. Though, true to form, they are keen, penetrating twists and doglegs.
The book was crafted as a set of stream-of-consciousness notions spat out at will to a devoted, and likely exhausted secretary. Though brilliant unto itself, Twain’s autobiography is best read after digesting a more objective biography, for context. That way, the reader can learn not only what Twain says, but what he is so artfully omitting, particularly about the painful demise of his wife.
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s name is often spoken in the same reverential breath as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Though, Mandela would never do so except to point out how different he is from those men. In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela unabashedly highlights that he was a revolutionary and a freedom fighter, willing to execute violence against his oppressors. Something abhorrent to Gandhi and King.
Long Walk does tell the story of the abuses that South Africans suffered under Apartheid, but more than that, it’s a revelatory image of a man who lived only for the struggle. He freely admits that the hero of the people was often an absentee failure as a father and a husband. As much as anything, it illustrates how sometimes normal happiness is sacrificed on the altar of greatness.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
As a rule, it’s not a good practice to read the diaries of thirteen-year-old girls. In this case, instead of lots of dreadful poetry, it provides a window into the life and times of those enduring the Jewish Holocaust of World War II. It speaks eloquently and simply of how people should be treated with respect and equality, whatever race, religion, or gender they may be.
Though this could be counted as “just another” holocaust book, what makes Anne Frank’s diary so remarkable is the fact that she is, like, totally a teenage girl. That means she’s sometimes petty and selfish, sometimes catty, and yet shows a hopefulness and optimism that belies her years and situation. Somehow, being exposed to her adolescent fits, nasty observations, as well as her kindness and compassion humanizes this work in a way that provides more than just a story, but a sense of living through the fear of Nazi occupation with this irrepressable, sometimes irreverent young woman.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Drugs, sex, and crème brulée is much of what you’ll get from Tony Bourdain’s book about the dark land lurking just behind the swinging doors of your favorite restaurant. The wild stories are brimming with zany “misfits” who are unbelievable, unless you’ve been fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to ever sling hash for a living. There’s no soap opera more dramatic nor intricate than the lives of servers, bus persons, and the moody master chefs who seem to subsist on a steady diet of temper tantrums fueled by straight vanilla extract.
Besides the no-health-code-violations-barred ridicule Bourdain heaps upon the land of high cuisine, Kitchen Confidential is also an insight into the destructive behaviors that marked much of Bourdain’s tenure on this little blue ball. It’s easy to see how his pain was mirrored in the people around him, and how his darkness found an outlet in this world of fornication beside caramelized onions.
They Call Me Coach
Sports ball isn’t for everyone. Fortunately, this isn’t really a book about tossing around the old leather pumpkin. It’s about a man trying to guide the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of young men as they attempt to manage the woes of adolescence and early adulthood while being idolized, reviled, and criticized by millions of people. It looks at John Wooten, who had to be a guide, mentor, and sometimes villain as he taught, cajoled, and inspired a bunch of kids to play on a stage far bigger than they could truly comprehend.
Even more than the greatness Wooten attained, this is about the painful years of journeying forward, when there were no championships to be had, no brass rings won, and nothing but scorn heaped upon him. It’s not only about the lives he directed, but how those boys playing that sport built him into someone to be respected.
Life: Keith Richards
When it comes to rock stars, Keith Richards didn’t break the mold. Keith Richards cast the mold, filled it with heroin, and sneeringly dared anyone to try to emulate him. When John Lennon at the height of his own drug use attempted debauchery at the same level as Richards, he found himself reduced to a puddle on the bathroom floor.
It’s impossible to tell the tale of Keef, as he’s affectionately, sometimes, known, without loads of drugs and sex. After all, this is a man who listed half a pharmacy of intake before deigning to get out of bed. But this excess is casually rattled off, while a shocking amount of time is lovingly spent describing chord structures and note arrangement. In short, it’s clear music was always his primary drug of choice. Moreover, he’s self-aware enough to recognize that he’s an icon and a legend, but that is jarringly separate from the man behind the madness.
Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way
Richard Branson has a philosophy worthy of Socrates. It boils down to a simple phrase, “Oh, screw it, let’s do it.” Really, many of us could stand to learn from this reckless, sometimes feckless, but irrepressible attitude. In his book, Branson talks about his successes, and how they were brought about by many, many failures and insane ideas he pursued until he just couldn’t chase them any longer. It’s an homage to living out loud, letting your critics go hang themselves, and never believing that you can’t do anything. Even bridal wear.