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National Biography Day

Sunday 15th May is National Biography Day which I thought warranted a bit more of an investigation.

My first stop was to look at Amazon to see which biographies and autobiographies came up in the best sellers’ categories. The results depended largely on whether I was searching on Amazon’s UK site or the US version.

The listings were quite different. If you search for ‘biography’ in ‘Books’ there was no cross-over at all. I’ll keep to the UK listing in this post as that is where most of my readers live at the moment. I hope my American cousins will forgive this rather domestic focus! In the Biography category there are 737,000 books listed so I limited myself to the first page of the search results.

Top of the list is the new release of the biography by Adam Sisman of John le Carré, author of so many wonderful spy stories which have been successful in print and on the big and small screens. Number 2 on the list is ‘Big Sam: My Autobiography’ by the man himself, Sam Allardyce, a football player of 20 years and even longer a manager and coach. This is followed by another sportsman, the New Zealand All Black Dan Carter’s autobiography.

To add balance, much loved cricketer Phil Tufnell and David Lloyd make the first page accompanied by Sir Tom Jones, whose career is seemingly never-ending and the presenter Caroline Flack who can only being covering a relatively small number of years given her age.

Three much-loved comedians are present. Paul Merton and Danny Baker’s autobiographies are joined by the biography of Victoria Wood who sadly died earlier this month.

Unsurprisingly, the list, very much dominated by figures from popular culture, shows our fascination with the lives of personalities we see and hear so frequently in the media. A glimpse into their personal lives probably reveals that they face the same issues all of us do – births, marriages, (divorces – of which there are many) and deaths. Their financial fortunes may give them more choices than the average Joe but do not make them immune from the humdrum or the range of emotions we all experience. In fact, many celebrities’ lives appear to me to be completely unappealing.

But what of historic biographies? This led me on a hunt for famous biographies which have stood the test of time. First of these is The Diaries of Samuel Pepys (1660-69) followed over 100 years later by The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791) which is a homage to the lexicographer. Looking at a sample of 20th century work we have:

  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)
  • Churchill: A life by Martin Gilbert (1969)
  • Wild Swans by Jung Chang (1991)
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
  • Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

And oh so many more.

If you are looking for a good read this summer, take a look at the biography section on Amazon.

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