The Practical Value of Reading Biographies

I read a lot as a child and as a teenager. Most of what I read was fiction, and much of the fiction I read was science fiction. In school, I read what we were given to read which was usually either some classic or, in high school, something a little more outside the norm, but generally fiction. Shakespeare, Dickens, some Vonnegut, some Kosiński. The bulk of the nonfiction reading I recalling doing was either in text books, or clippings of essays from works of philosophers, or the occasional report we had to do.

I suppose my reading influenced me somewhat in what I wanted to do when I grew up. Early on (in first grade), I came across a book called The Nine Planets which turned me onto astronomy. I thought I wanted to be an astronomer. Later, reading science fiction made me want to write science fiction. In both cases, I knew nothing about what it means to be an astronomer or a writer, I knew nothing of the mechanics of the job. Nothing I learned through high school taught me more about this.

Looking back, I find this disappointing. Beginning late in my college career, I began to read biographies and found, to my surprise, that they were an excellent source of what a certain career was really like. The first of these was Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov, which I read in my senior year of college when it first came out, just after Asimov’s death. I learned what being a writer was really like, and I learned even more from Asimov’s lengthier 2-volume autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt which went into painstaking detail on the life of one writer.

Eventually I branched out and read more widely in biography. I read many biographies of presidents and scientists. I read biographies of other writers. I read biographies of buisness leaders, technologists, journalists, soldiers, teachers, astronauts, pilots, engineers, software developers, and countless more. In many cases, I read enough in an area so that the extremes balanced out and I got a good sense of the profession as a whole. Each time I finish one of these biographies, I come away, more often than not, thinking, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.” I thought that this very morning as I finished up a biography of J.C.R. Lichlider.

Why don’t schools encourage more reading of biographies? In my experience, a biography is great way to learn, not about one person’s life, but about a particular career path. Students get a sense of what the life of an astronomer, or lawyer, or software developer, or police officer, or cow hand is really like. Reading multiple biographies allow students to compare and contrast different possible interests. It seems to me that students well-read in a variety of biographies will find that they enjoy some more than others and will pursue those more and more. By the time college arrives, there may even be a realistic inkling of what field of study that student wants to enter.

My own choice of major–political science and journalism–was made out of a lack of other ideas. It seemed a general enough for anything. Besides, I had my computing skills to fall back, which I ultimately did. But if I have read more biographies in grade school and high school, I think I would have been better prepared to make a decision about a field of study than I was when I entered college (a physics major, originally!).

Looking at the books that my kids read in school, I don’t see much biography involved so I suspect things haven’t changed much. I’ve tried to encourage the occasional diversion into biography, but the truth is, I’m just happy the kids are reading anything and don’t want to discourage that.

To me, biographies are much more than histories of people. They are practical guides to life and careers based on lived experience, and I try to take away something practical from every biography I read. For a 12-year old, there may not seem much practical in reading a “boring biography”, but I’ve rarely encountered a boring biography, and as a 12-year old, the practical value is in learning what life in a certain kind of career is really like. It helps form opinions and make decisions further down the road.

4 comments

  1. I think titles like Boy and Going Solo (by Roald Dahl) would work pretty fine as (auto-)biographies for younger readers. Among teens, biographies about actors/athletes/musicians are usually popular at the library.

  2. Thank you Jamie.

    1) Have you ever considered that not everything written in biographies is true? How does that impact the impressions you have and the inspiration you gather to choose directions in your life?

    2) Your article is helping me in addressing a question of mine: “How do you live multiple lives?”. Do you think reading biographies can help you, or give the sense that you have somehow lived multiple lives?

    Thank you.
    Max

  3. Max, (1) Sure, but just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t inspirational (isn’t that what fiction is all about?). I think we learn what to take and what to leave behind from experience and wider reading (to say nothing of following up on anything questionable through citations and other sources). (2) I have had this thought, although it has been more often along the line of, wow, an entirely life compressed down to 500 pages! I’m not sure I’ve ever felt I’ve lived that life, but sometimes, with really good biographies, I’ve felt I’ve gotten to know the subject as a person, and it is always sad when they die in the end.

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