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The Best Autobiographies and Biographies That Everyone Should Read

Best Autobiographies and Biographies Everyone Should Read
A biography is an account of an individual's life presented by someone other than the subject, whereas an autobiography is written by the subject himself. Penlighten compiles a list of the best-selling autobiographies and biographies of all time.
Prajakta Patil
Last Updated: Mar 9, 2018
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The history of mankind has seen some of the most influential people in various areas, and reading their autobiographies and biographies can benefit you in innumerable ways. Not only are they immensely inspirational, but they also help you change your outlook towards life. The stories of these people, who have struggled and striven for success, motivate the readers to follow their dreams. Unlike fiction, these books give readers the satisfaction of actually being inside the subject's life, and relive the events that have happened for real. Autobiographies and biographies of those who are pioneers in their field act as guides to those who intend to get into those areas. On the other hand, those people who faced a lot of hardships due to their mistakes in life help the readers to learn their lessons. Some of the most famous biographies and autobiographies are those about famous politicians, authors, historical figures, and celebrities.
Long Walk to Freedom
Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela (July 18, 1918 - December 5, 2013) was the first black president of South Africa who served from 1994 to 1999. He was an anti-apartheid revolutionary who brought an end to apartheid in South Africa. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his contribution to global peacemaking. Mandela, who was the president of the African National Congress in 1940, fought for racial equality through various protests and armed resistance. This resulted in his imprisonment on the Robben Island for nearly three decades. Long Walk to Freedom is the story of his triumph after a series of setbacks. It takes us through his heartwarming journey from being the son of a tribal chief to being the President of his country. Apart from the story itself, the quotes and passages in the book are intensely inspirational. For example, the book ends beautifully with, "But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended."
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 - May 28, 2014), an African-American, was an award-winning author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer. She played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. During her lifetime, she published seven autobiographies and an enormous collection of essays and poetry. She received a number of awards and nearly 50 honorary degrees for her contribution to the fields of literature and entertainment. She became a writer after trying her hand at several occupations like a fry cook, prostitute, and a nightclub dancer. The first out of her seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, portrays her life from the age of three to seventeen. It tells the touching story of how she was raped at the age of eight, had to deal with its consequences, and how she later learned to love herself, as well as others. It also portrays the beautiful relationship that she shared with her brother, Bailey, after being abandoned by their parents twice. In all, the book talks about her fight against sexual abuse, racial prejudice, prostitution, violence, and an unwanted pregnancy.
The Story of My Experiments With Truth
Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi (2 October 1869 - 30 January 1948) was an Indian leader who played a very important role in the fight for India's freedom, from the British rule. His non-violent civil disobedience movement ultimately led to India's independence in 1947, and also influenced several movements for civil rights across the world. Gandhi, who had studied law in London, fought for people's rights in both South Africa (where he worked as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders) as well as India. He led nationwide movements to expand woman's rights, eradicating untouchability and other socioeconomic issues. He also opposed child marriages, sati, and purdah system in India. In My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi narrates the story of his childhood, his life in London and South Africa, the Indian independence movement, and how he used non-violence as a weapon against the Britishers.
The Story of My Life
Helen Keller
Helen Keller (June 27, 1880 - June 1, 1968), born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, was an American author, lecturer, political activist, and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. During her lifetime, she fought for various causes like woman's suffrage and labor rights as a member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World. She was the first deaf and blind person to have ever earned a Bachelor's degree. When she was just 2 years old, she had contracted a fever, which later left her deaf and blind. At the age of 7, she started learning from Anne Sullivan who was appointed as her tutor by her parents. She was a quick learner and began to speak by the age of 10. At 20, she got into Radcliffe College where she compiled her struggles into her autobiography The Story of My Life. Apart from the efforts that she had to take to reawaken her ability to speak, the book focuses on her relationship with Miss Sullivan and how she persuaded Helen to write.
The Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank
Anne Frank
Anne Frank (June 12, 1929 - early March 1945) was a writer who was a victim of Nazi brutality during the World War II. She was one of the million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust. Anne was born in Frankfurt, Germany and lived in Amsterdam with her family during the war. However, to escape from the increasing persecution of the Jews, the family went into hiding in Amsterdam for two years. It was then that Frank penned down her experiences in her diary, which was posthumously released as The Diary of a Young Girl in 1947. This book is the story of her life from June 12, 1942 until August 1, 1944, and describes the events of the war in detail. It is a representation of how other Jewish families lived and coped during the war. The autobiography has been translated into almost 70 languages so far.
Dreams From My Father
Barack Obama
Barack Obama
Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961. He is the 44th and current president of the United States, and the first African-American to serve as the US president. He is a Columbia University and Harvard Law School graduate who was a civil rights lawyer and teacher before pursuing a political career. He was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, serving from 1997 to 2004. After being sworn to presidency on November 4, 2008, he won a second term in 2012. Dreams From My Father, published in 2004, describes Obama's journey from his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his life and community work in Chicago, and his journey to meet his father's family in Kenya. He also recalls how he came to terms with his father's death, and how it was to be raised by his white grandparents. It gives an overview of American race relations, from the perspective of someone who belongs to both the worlds. In 2011, the Time Magazine listed the book on its top 100 non-fiction books written in English since 1923.
Other Autobiographies to Read
It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life - Lance Armstrong
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China - Jung Chang
Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin - Benjamin Franklin
Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life - Steve Martin
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai
Losing My Virginity - Richard Branson
Mother Teresa: In My Own Words - Mother Teresa
My Story - Marilyn Monroe, Ben Hecht, Joshua Green
Mein Kampf - Adolf Hitler
Steve Jobs
Walter Isaacson
The authorized biography of Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs was published by Walter Issacson in 2011. Jobs was an American entrepreneur, co-founder, and the CEO of Apple Inc. It is the story of Steve Jobs' rise from being a college dropout to one of the most sensational entrepreneurs of the 20th century. It takes us into his journey from finding the NeXT, Inc. to the return of Apple, through a series of interviews with him, his family, friends, and colleagues. The book is one of the best reads mainly because of Issacson's narrative way of writing. The book is an engaging story of Job's life instead of a listing of facts and figures. Although the writer seems to be positively biased to Jobs, it hasn't stopped him from exploring his darker side. The presentation of both the sides lets the reader search for his own opinion about the icon. The book is currently running under the title iSteve: The Book of Jobs.
Diana: Her True Story
Andrew Morton
In Diana: Her True Story, Morton has examined Diana's life through her own words. The book is a compilation of her personal recollection of her years at school and personal memories. Written with the cooperation of her family and friends, the book presents facts about Princess Diana and her royal marriage. In the 1992 edition (after Diana's death), Morton included the transcriptions of Diana's answers to Morton's questions, which she had recorded secretly. The most interesting part of the book is the author's note, where he admits having smuggled the list of questions to Diana, who would smuggle her recorded answers back to him. The book also includes some of the unseen photographs of the royal family. Other interesting biographies of Diana include Diana by Sarah Bradford, Diana: Story of a Princess by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig, and The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown.
Walt Disney
Neal Gabler
Walt Disney (December 5, 1901 - December 15, 1966) was an American animator, producer, director, and voice artist. He is famous as the founder of cartoon films and more importantly, as the creator of Disneyland. He created various fictional characters including Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. Disney completely transformed the world of animation with his feature films like Bambi, Fantasia, Snow White, and Pinocchio. During his lifetime, he received a number of awards for his contribution to the world of entertainment. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was published by Neal Gabler in 2006 and describes Disney journey from being a contributing cartoonist for the school paper to the creator of Disney. Gabler has brilliantly managed to explain why Walt Disney did what he did, and what drove him to build the Disney empire. A must-read biography for all Disney fans!
Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn
Donald Spoto
Audrey Hepburn (May 4, 1929 - January 20, 1993) was an award-winning actress, fashion model, and humanitarian. After working in a number of British films, she rose to fame with a lead role in Roman Holiday in 1953. She was the most sensational beauties of her time, who had a reputation of being humble and kind. Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn was published by Donald Spoto in 2006. The biography provides details of her upbringing, struggles during World War II in Nazi Holland, her dancing career, and eventually her rise to stardom. It also discusses her life with UNICEF, and her humanitarian efforts. The book has explored her love life in detail. Her life has been explained in a chronological order, which makes it even easier to follow.
Coco Chanel
Various Authors
Coco Chanel (August 19, 1883 - January 10, 1971) was born in Saumur, France. She was a fashion designer and founder of the Chanel brand who became popular for her signature scent Chanel no. 5, and little black dresses. A lot has been written on the life of this amazing designer and entrepreneur. However, there are four exceptionally well-written biographies of Chanel that are absolute must-reads for all her followers. First is Chanel and Her World: Friends, Fashion, and Fame by her official biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux. First published in 1979, the book, which has a lot of unseen photographs of Chanel, helps us understand her personality a lot better. The second one, Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, published by Lisa Chaney in 2011, is Chanel's most thoroughly researched biography till date. The book, which focuses on her origins and secret sufferings, also reveals her addiction to drugs, and the truth about her lesbian affairs.

The third biography, Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent is a treat for history lovers. It was published by Hal Vaughan in 2011, and documents her collaboration with Hitler's officials and other activities during the World War II in France. The author tells us how Chanel became a German spy, escaped an arrest in France, and lived in Switzerland for nine years, before returning to Paris and reestablishing her name. It also gives details about her love affair with Baron von Dincklage, a German soldier. The last one on the list is Justine Picardie's Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life which was published in 2010. The book tells us how Chanel was abandoned as a child and spent her early years in a convent orphanage. The biography covers her strengths as well as weaknesses, and sheds light on the sad truth behind her glamorous life.
Other Biographies to Read
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette - Judith Thurman
The Zookeeper's Wife - Diane Ackerman
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. - Ron Chernow
Einstein: His Life and Universe - Walter Isaacson
Cleopatra: A Life - Stacy Schiff
Wild Swans - Jung Chang
Tolstoy - Henri Troyat
Virginia Woolf - Quentin Bell
Oscar Wilde - Richard Ellmann
Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness - J. Randy Taraborrelli
Some of them inspire you to follow your dreams, while some of them teach you various lessons. Reading these stories of successful people can change you as a person in more than one way. So, just pick one, get inspired, and make your life's journey a success.
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