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10 Brilliant Biographies That Every Writer Must Read

by Staff Writers

By Katheryn Rivas

Writers do not — or at least should not — work in a vacuum. Regardless of whether or not they go to college, attend workshops or network with other professionals and hopeful professionals, they still absorb something of the world at large. These experiences ultimately mold their works, even on a subconscious level; so many creative types actively seek out other perspectives in order to add texture and dimension to their portfolios. One simple means of gaining insight involves simply picking up a book, and those by or about professionals in a desired field makes for a valuable start. The following biographies and autobiographies of influential and notable writers may not even scratch the surface of available, worthwhile reads. But they do, at least, provide a nice framework from which aspirant authors can move forward, eventually picking and choosing similar pieces relevant to their interests.

  1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway: A young, indomitable Ernest Hemingway bounds through sensuous European expatriate adventures, accompanied by his wife Hadley and little son. Anecdotes abound regarding his relationships with such literary and artistic figureheads as Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Hilaire Belloc and many more, granting readers an intimate peek at the creativity bubbling in 1920s Paris. One of the most memorable stories involves the famous writer accompanying F. Scott Fitzgerald on a road trip, where to two grow closer in spite of their occasional blows. Quite a hilarious series of scenes, really, in spite of the occasional bit of tragedy, courtesy of poor Zelda Fitzgerald’s pernicious mental state.

  2. Ignatius Rising by Deborah George Hardy and Rene Pol Nevils: Brilliant A Confederacy of Dunces scribe John Kennedy Toole led a fascinating, yet ultimately tragic life prior to winning a posthumous Pulitzer in 1981. While the more famous of his two novels certainly stands on its own as a work of literature, fans who pick up this revealing biography can easily piece together points of commonality between fantasy and reality. Most especially when it comes to the central relationship between a flustered and smothering widow and her lofty, melodramatic, intellectual son — for those who read both, A Confederacy of Dunces occasionally reads more as an autobiography than one of the most hilarious and provocative American novels of the 20th Century.

  3. Maus by Art Spiegelman: The graphic memoir has gained considerable attention within the past few years, though it extends back much further than that. Though Art Spiegelman did not create the genre, he certainly wrote and drew one of its most notable and defining works. He interviewed his father Vladek about his gut-wrenching experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz, depicting the era as a dangerous (and famously literal and metaphorical) game of cat-and-mouse. In spite of their bonding, Spiegelman does often find himself uneasy with his father’s present attitude, making this an incredibly realistic read on complex family relations as well as a useful history. Many Holocaust literature courses feature Maus prominently on their syllabus, alongside other essential biographies, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night.

  4. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: It probably comes as little surprise that at least one of the other more mainstream and recognized graphic memoirists cites Art Spiegelman as a major influence. Thanks to the faithful, truly lovely film adaptation, many flocked to Marjane Satrapi’s highly engaging autobiography and granted it the prestige it deserves. With equal parts humor and horror, she chronicles her life as a child growing up in Iran after the Shah’s deposition. Escaping the fundamentalist Islamic regime, she receives schooling in Europe, only to find that her host countries come packaged with their own sets of prejudices and abuses as well. Through simple yet incredibly evocative drawings, Satrapi pours out her emotions, personal failings, triumphs and tragedies with an elegant honesty.

  5. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein: Gertrude Stein and her partner in life and business Alice B. Toklas lived a charmed expatriate existence in Paris following the First World War. Though written by the former, the popular book about their experiences actually sports the perspective of the latter, hence the title. As well-known patrons of the arts who often hosted salons and parties with the best and the brightest of the era, including T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse and the aforementioned Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, her memoir overflows with stories of creativity and clashing. Of course, she also discusses her early life prior to the famous stint in Europe as well. Definitely an excellent autobiography for writers hoping to learn about the goings-on of myriad innovative and influential people.

  6. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers: This Pulitzer finalist epitomizes (so far, anyway) the use of meta and postmodern elements in a memoir. Within a month of one another, Eggers’ parents die of different cancers, leaving him as the legal guardian of his little brother Christopher ("Toph"). What follows is a rich tale of family and self-awareness, punctuated frequently by pure fantasies, self-aware liberties, altered timelines, a frequently absent fourth wall and other narrative components. Eggers’ style mimics the way human memory compresses, decompresses, misremembers and imagines, resulting in a highly entertaining, emotional carnival ride on the cusp between fact and fiction. The "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making" addendum offers a clearer focus on how he crafted this memorable work.

  7. The Diary of Anais Nin by Anais Nin: Famous for her erotic works and relationship with Henry and June Miller, Anais Nin accomplished much, much more and befriended many other influential thinkers than most probably realize. Her diaries span nine volumes and recount multiple decades’ worth of experiences and ideas. Sharp and sensual, Nin encountered a battery of writers, artists, psychologists and other intellectuals, discussing both opinions and lessons gleaned from them. The well-educated, well-read and whip-smart woman provided her own unique perspective on the concepts batted about during her lifetime; any fans hoping to place her wonderful works into a cultural and personal context should certainly pick up at least one corresponding volume.

  8. The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain: American literature aficionados consider Mark Twain (the nom de plume of Samuel Langhorn Clemens) amongst the nation’s greatest writers and satirists. He dictated a number of anecdotes and ideologies in the last few years of his life, though prior to that nearly every attempt at scratching out a complete, formal autobiography fell flat. The stories themselves come loosely affiliated with one another and come published more as a series rather than a long, lengthy, linear narrative, meaning he left in nothing but the particularly poignant or humorous bits. As with many of his celebrated novels and short stories, the settings come slathered in such rich precision they seem almost as if characters in and of themselves.

  9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings contains some of the most poetic prose ever committed to print. No surprise, considering Maya Angelou once occupied the admirable position of Poet Laureate of the United States! In spite of her buoyant spirit, the writer’s life came fraught with racial stereotyping and bullying, sexual assault and an unexpected teen pregnancy. Yet she pulled courage from deep within her core and walked through the trials and tribulations with her head held high, coming out of the dark with a deep self-awareness many people will never achieve. Even non-writers can find something to love and appreciate about her inspiring story — though really, one should be able to say that about any on this list.

  10. J.R.R. Tolkien Humphrey Carpenter: Though not an autobiography, the famous, academic, linguist and Lord of the Rings helmsman granted Humphrey Carpenter personal interviews and insights for his write-up — so much of what’s included here comes straight from the source. An intimate portrait into J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and works resulted, with the biographer piecing together how his myriad pursuits came to shape his illustrious career. His early life does not go unexplored, either, especially considering how much the death of his parents and subsequent descent into poverty impacted him. Relationships with family and friends factor greatly into the narrative as well, most especially the one he shared with equally beloved writer C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia fame.