They Show Us Who We Are, Who We Could Be

I am a lover of biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies.  I like to get to know interesting people in depth, see how they tick, learn what led them to the achievements in their lives.  I’ve always enjoyed a well-written biography of historical figures.  Not those ones we read in elementary school that were nothing more than a glorified encyclopedia article, but the ones where someone with writing talent put down the life of someone who really made a difference in a way that impels me to keep reading.  I’ll pick up a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Thomas Cahill, Jim Murphy, Russell Freedman, David McCullough, or Walter Isaacson any time.

I do not read celebrity memoirs, autobiographies, or even biographies.  There is nothing in most of their stories to compel me to want to know more about them.  I certainly don’t want to read some tell-all exposé of anyone’s sexual exploits or feuds.  There was an exception.  Way back when I was a teen, I read Sammy Davis, Jr.’s book Yes, I Can.  It was fascinating not for the stories of his rubbing elbows with the likes of Frank Sinatra but because of the things I learned about being black in America…even if you happen to be a famous black man in America.  I learned of how he couldn’t enter the front door or stay at the hotels where he performed in Las Vegas.  I learned of the meanness in the way he was treated by the men he served with in the army.  It was eye-opening to a young teen who really knew nothing about those things.  The other exception is Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime which never covers anything that happened to him outside of South Africa so it really is about a boy growing up in South Africa and not about a famous comedian.

I’ve picked up a couple of books written by athletes – Tony Dungy’s book Quiet Strength, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book on Lou Holtz, and a book by Cal Ripken, Jr.  I found Dungy’s book interesting, but that may be because it wasn’t a memoir.  He had something to say.  For the most part, unless they have an interesting story off the field/court/whatever, I’m not interested in those.

I’m not sure when it started but I also read memoirs of people I have never heard of.  I stumble across a book in the bookstore or as I’m reading somewhere that is about someone who just seems really interesting to me.  Sometimes they are people that nobody has really heard of.  Probably the first of these I remember reading was called The Cork Boat: The True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built by John Pollack.  The cover made it sound intriguing.  I picked it up in a train station just before boarding and read all the way from Pennsylvania to Florida.  Pollack recounts how he and his sister began collecting corks to use to build a boat just as a project and not with any great impetus to complete it.  However, when his sister passed away, he decided that this was something he had to complete in her memory.  The struggle and effort it took were much more than he had ever dreamed when starting it.  It made for a very good story.  And I have continued reading this type of memoir.  

Recently I’ve read a couple of memoirs that have really taken a place in my heart.  They are written by well-known people.  Well, at least well-known  within a certain segment of the population.  I’m sure they are not JLo famous (every time Joe and Rob walk into my house and see my doormat that says, “If you are a book delivery, a cleaning crew, or Joanna Gaines, we are home” I get the question, “Who is Joanna Gaines?”) They are a couple of books written by couples from HGTV – Chip and Joanna Gaines and Ben and Erin Napier.  I wasn’t sure what compelled me to read their books.  As I said, I don’t usually pick up stories about the famous folks from the entertainment world.  But there was something about these two couples that made me want to get to know them better.  I have read a couple of books by the Gaines including The Magnolia Story and Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff (as well as their Magnolia Journal), and I just finished Make Something Good Today by the Napiers.  I was drawn in to the stories of how each couple met, became who they are, and how they do the work they do.  In each of the books I found paragraphs that were so beautifully written or offered such lovely insights about life that I marked them.

After finishing the book by Erin and Ben Napier I paused to reflect on what made me want to read this book and why I liked it so well.  That got me pondering the same thing about the books from Chip and Joanna Gaines.  I have finally figured out what made these books so appealing to me.   I like these people.  I liked them on television and in their books.  I’d like to meet them and have a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea on the front porch with them. 

In both cases, these were people who never sought after a television career or being in the public eye.  They are people who started with nothing and followed a passion.  They are people who truly love each other, their families, and their communities.  They are good people doing what they love and someone took notice.  That’s how they ended up on television.  And it comes through on my television screen and in their books.  They are people I would like to know.  They are the kind of people I would like to be.  And they have a love story that I always wished for.  They are full of hope, enthusiasm, and optimism.  They made me feel good as I read.  

This is what compels me to read biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies.  I want to see the humanity in the people out there doing great things, the people who are doing their best, and those who are just good folks.  Well-written, nonfiction narratives are among my favorite books.  Check out the ones below for a good place to start.  You won’t find the Hollywood set, any great people well-known from history, or the sports icons.  You’ll find good people doing remarkable things and living their best lives.

  • Albom, Mitch –Tuesdays With Morrie
  • Anderson, Laurie Halse – Shout
  • Andrés, José – We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time
  • Blanchard, Kenneth H. – The Generosity Factor
  • Brown, Daniel James –The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans  and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
  • Bryson, Bill –A Walk in the Woods
    • I’m a Stranger Here Myself
    • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
  • Conroy, Pat – The Water is Wide
    • My Reading Life
  • DeFede, Jim – The Day the World Came to Town:  9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland
  • Dungy, Tony – Quiet Strength
  • Engle, Margarita – Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings
  • Gaines, Chip – Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned  Doing Stupid Stuff 
  • Gaines, Chip and Joanna  – The Magnolia Story
  • Hall, Ron – Same Kind of Different as Me
  • Hillenbrand, Laura – Seabiscuit
    • Unbroken
  • McBride, James – The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
  • McCourt, Frank – Angela’s Ashes
    • ’Tis
    • Teacher Man
  • Napier, Erin & Ben.  – Make Something Good Today
  • Noah, Trevor – Born a Crime: Stories From a South  African Childhood
  • Obed, Ellen Bryan – Twelve Kinds of Ice
  • Ozma, Alice – The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared
  • Pollack, John – Cork Boat
  • Quindlen, Anna – A Short Guide to a Happy Life
    • How Reading Changed My Life
  • Ralston, Jeannie –The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming
  • Reichl, Ruth –Tender at the Bone
    • Comfort Me With Apples
    • Save Me the Plums
  • Reynolds, Jason – For Every One
  • Robinson, Mary – Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice
  • Tada, Joni Eareckson – Joni: An Unforgettable Story
  • Trigiani, Adriana – Don’t Sing at the Table: Life Lessons From My Grandmothers
  • Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis
  • Walls, Jeanet – The Glass Castle
  • Westover, Tara – Educated
  • Wiesel, Elie – Night
  • Woodson, Jacqueline – Brown Girl Dreaming
    • Show Way
  • Yousafzai, Malala – I Am Malala

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