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Biographies: The Famous, Infamous and Not-so-Famous

August 5, 2011 | John P. | Comments (0)

Truth can be stranger than fiction (with apologies to Lord Byron). Biographies afford us the opportunity to learn of someone's life told by another person.

Appeal Factors: Biographies

  • Characters: People like reading about people as well as their challenges, any ethical dilemmas, and how they adjust and grow over time.
  • Pace: Readers may read biographies at a more leisurely speed, especially if they contain many details about a person’s life and experiences.
  • Frame/Setting: Readers may enjoy reading about the historical context in which the subject is immersed as much as the subject her(him)self.


Other Factors to Consider

  • Narrative
  • Subject
  • Story Line
  • Detail
  • Experiential Learning
  • Truth – Virginia Woolf liked to read biographies because they were “true”. Naturally, readers need to be aware of a particular viewpoint or perspective being expressed. Is libel an issue?


Here are several examples of biographies available for loan by placing a hold through the Toronto Public Library website and catalogue:


Mary Tudor

Mary Tudor: princess, bastard, queen

By: Anna Whitelock

New York: Random House, 2009.


Historian Anna Whitelock presents a sympathetic portrait of "Bloody Mary" as a survivor who went from being a princess and daughter of Henry Vlll to a bastard under Henry's creation of the Church of England and his successive remarriages to obtain a male heir, and a Catholic at odds with the brief ultra-Protestant reign of brother Edward but who was determined to succeed him. Mary's ascent as the first queen regnant of England paved the way for the more popular Elizabeth l.

Whitelock does not excuse the excessive brutality towards Protestants that occurred during Mary's reign as Queen but urges readers to balance these out with her achievements as well, including her abilities in the area of policy making and conducting ceremonies.


Grace Hopper


Grace Hopper and the invention of the information age

By: Kurt Beyer

Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009.


The first woman to earn a PhD in mathematics at Yale University, Hopper enlisted in naval officer training after Pearl Harbor during World War 2 and worked on the large Mark 1 computer. She wrote the first computer manual, led the development of the COBOL computer programming language, and pursued her desire of a democratic, information age.


Golda Meir



By: Elinor Burkett

New York: Harper, 2008.


The author gives the reader a balanced and readable biography of much admired former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was born in Russia and emigrated to America before ending up as a Zionist in Palestine. Israel's near-destruction in the 1973 Yom Kippur war led to her resignation as Prime Minister. The biography also touches upon the subject's less than successful familial relations as her husband and children took second place to political aspirations.


Hans Litten


Crossing Hitler: the man who put the Nazis on the witness stand

By: Benjamin Carter Hett

New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lawyer Hans Litten cross-examined Adolf Hitler on the witness stand for two hours as he represented two workers in a 1931 case who had been stabbed by some of Hitler's storm troopers. Hitler escaped perjury charges due to the intervention of the presiding judge. Upon the Nazi ascent to power in Germany, Litten was sent to a concentration camp and committed suicide in 1939 after several years of abuse.


Willie Mays


Willie Mays: the life, the legend

By: James S. Hirsch

New York: Scribner, 2010.


This authorized biography portrays Mays in a balanced fashion, not only showing the genius on the baseball field, including "the Catch" in the 1954 World Series and his promotion of a faster style of play, but also problems in his personal life and his somewhat cold personality.


Josef Fritzl


I'm no monster: the horrifying true story of Josef Fritzl

By: Stephanie Marsh

New York: Berkley Books, 2009.


Fritzl imprisoned his 18-year old daughter Elisabeth secretly for 24 years and raped her repeatedly. Consequently, Elisabeth gave birth to seven children. The illness of one of the children brought this case to light in 2008 when the child was taken to hospital and Elisabeth's imprisonment was discovered. Austrian police and social service agencies were criticized for not concluding that there were problems in the Fritzl household soon enough.


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