“Autobiography is usually honest but never truthful.”
So wrote Robert A. Heinlein in his novel Friday, and I’m inclined to agree. I’ve read memoirs, autobiographies, biographies and I don’t suppose any of them are 100% truthful.
But does that matter? Probably not so much.
Try telling a story from your childhood, and no doubt you will colour in the background, put words into people’s mouths, set the sun shining on a rainy day and skew the narrative to appeal to your listener. We all tell ourselves a version of events that happened to us, to make sense of it or to make ourselves feel better, so why should we expect an autobiography to be 100% truth, or to come with reliable witnesses and evidence. Autobiography is the story of one’s life, not just the facts.
Most autobiography sets out with good intentions but is unreliable at best and fictional at worst – usually honest but never truthful. Rather than being the hard facts, I prefer to think of an autobiography as being an ‘autobiographical’ account of the facts, or even better, as Clive James entitled his autobiography, ‘Unreliable Memoirs’.
Either way, autobiography has provided us with some of the most interesting, most beautiful and most gripping stories that can be read. Here I will tell you about ten autobiographies I have read and loved, and why I loved them.
1. Two Sides of the Moon, by Alexei Leonov and David Scott
Improbably picked up by chance, for 50 pence as at a church fete, this is an awe-inspiring dual autobiography of Cosmonaut Leonov and Astronaut Scott. Told in parallel narratives it charts their childhoods in Russia and the USA respectively, their air force careers and their roles in the space race. It also covers the space race itself, who was in front, when and why, what risks were taken, what odds were defied. There are some hair-raising moments. Mostly though this book brings to life the people who went to space and just what an extraordinary thing it was to exit in the earth’s atmosphere in a tin can with less computing power than a pocket calculator.
2. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
An open and honest coming of age biography, full of the vibrancy of youth, of time (the 1960s) and place (New York, Greenwich Village), encompassing art and artists, music, photography, writing, poetry, Hendrix, Joplin, Dylan, Warhol and Ginsberg. It’s brim-full of love and understanding. I’m not really a fan of Patti Smith’s music but this book is wonderful.
3. A Fortunate Life, by Albert Facey
I picked this up in Australia about ten years after it was published, knowing nothing about it. It tells the story of the century, and extraordinary life of an ordinary man. Parentless and working in often cruel conditions from the age of eight, running an outback station from fourteen, surviving Gallipoli, it is inspiring and humbling, told with honesty, humility, compassion and courage.
4. Diary Of A Young Girl, by Anne Frank
If you haven’t actually read this you should. Never intended for publication, this was the diary 13-year-old Anne kept whilst hiding from the Nazi’s in a cramped attic in Amsterdam with her family and another family for two years. It’s courageous, thoughtful, humorous, and ultimately heart-breaking.
5. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
The first instalment of Angelou’s multi-part autobiography is an absolute tour-de-force, dealing with the highs and lows, the traumas and the context of her eclectic and unstable childhood. First thing to note is that is incredibly readable, even the difficult parts. The second thing is just how well it captures time, place and attitudes. It’s like sitting down and listening to her talk.
6. The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz
True? Not true? This one has a bit of a shadow of controversy over it, but it’s one hell of an extraordinary story, powerful but understated. The majority of the book covers the author’s escape from a prison camp in Siberia, and his trek across Siberia, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas to India. It is a story of endurance and courage, friendship and determination against all odds.
7. Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer
Harrer is honest about his failures and his shortcomings, which are notable, but the heart of this story is a voyage into the unknown, into the mystical and barren Tibetan landscape, into a world completely alien to Europeans, and into a magical encounter with the young Dalai Lama. The film isn’t bad at all, but of course the book is better.
8. Bound for Glory, by Woody Guthrie
Guthrie’s bounding, joyful, garrulous and musical prose leaps from the page, carrying you on a journey across America, from crowded boxcars to dustbowl towns. His songs are stories, his story is a song full of idiom, slang and imagery. He plays with language. The book charts his extraordinary life up to 1943 (it’s worth reading Joe Klein’s biography as an accompaniment as it covers Guthrie’s whole life, including his issues with blacklisting/McCarthy, Greenwich Village, meetings with Bob Dylan, and his battle with Huntington’s Disease.
9. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
A book about loss, grieving, love and life. The year of magical thinking is the year following her husband’s sudden and unexpected death, it’s impact on her mental health and the process she went through, about losing yourself and trying to find yourself again. Unflinching, personal, yet universal. Difficult to read in parts but impossible to stop reading.
10. Dandy in the Underworld, by Sebastian Horsley
Depraved, absolutely hilarious, self-centred and self-obsessed, this is in your face and full of gorgeous, overblown prose and outrageousness. Sex and Drugs and Savile Row. Shane McGowan succinctly said of it “Dandy in the Underworld shits all over William Burroughs first two books and makes Will Self look like a ponce.” Horsley was denied entry into the USA because of ‘moral turpitude’. Got to love him.
Not quite in the top ten but still 5* reads
Goodbye to all that, by Robert Graves – his vivid, harrowing and understated account of the First World War, and its impact on people, society and the world is at the heart of this book, but it also covers his school years, his friendship with Siegfried Sassoon and his meeting with the elderly Thomas Hardy.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X and Alex Haley) – this is a great piece of work that falls somewhere between biography and autobiography, and contains some brutally honest revelations.
Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama – so good about his early years and his community development work in Chicago.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau – wonderful writing, but more of a journal or an autobiographical essay than an autobiography.
Unreliable Memoirs, by Clive James – this is just beautifully written, and the first volume is a paean to growing up in Australia in the 1940s and 50s.
Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass – essential reading, a first-hand account of slavery and its consequences in the 1800s.
Don’t Make Me Laugh, by Norman Wisdom – a whole century life, the most incredible parts of which are the parts you don’t know. No spoilers, but an unbelievable life.
The Autobiography, by Jack Charlton – Charlton was just a legend. The way he played, the way he managed, the way he lived life. Charming, uncompromising and full of great anecdotes.
Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer – more of a memoir than an autobiography, and there is a feeling that you are being fed a defensive statement about Krakauer’s actions in a disaster, but still it is utterly compelling.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, by Dylan Thomas – riffing on the title of James Joyce’s autobiography, a love if place, family and people shine through this book. The language is beautiful, as you would expect from a poet. Evoking childhood as an adult is not as easy as Thomas makes it look.
The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, by Mary Seacole – a great life, adventures and travel beyond belief, an indomitable spirit, a huge heart and an enriching read.
There are many great autobiographies that I have not read of course, not least of which, I suspect, is Nelson Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom. Let me know which ones you’d recommend either on here, or by DM-ing me on Instagram @places_and_books
Thanks for reading!