Biographies are favorites of vintage book collectors, especially when signed by the author or subject. At best, biographies by writers like Robert Caro are exhaustive and scholarly works, written with the full knowledge and cooperation of the person (or their heirs) whose life has been placed under the microscope. At worst, biographies are unauthorized hatchet jobs, churned out by celebrity authors such as Kitty Kelley and opportunistic publishers looking to cash in on the human frailties of movie stars, first ladies, and other personalities. Somewhere in the middle is the hagiography, which takes its name from medieval tracts about saints but is generally understood to mean a biography that is too effusive and uncritical.

Autobiographies and memoirs are even more unreliable histories. While many people are comfortable revealing some of their faults, human nature prevents most autobiographers from being completely honest about their lives. Memoirs are often even less comprehensive than autobiographies, sometimes serving only as snapshots of, say, the author’s childhood or years spent abroad. Better are diaries, which are typically confessional and candid. In contrast, autobiographies are often little more than calculated attempts to rewrite history.

One of the most famous diaries was written by Samuel Pepys, a 17th-century Londoner who was a Member of Parliament and an administrator in the Royal Navy. Penned by Pepys during the 1660s, mostly in shorthand, the six-volume diary was not published until 1825, with subsequent “translations” printed in the 1870s and ’90s. Alas, all of these editions left out Pepys’ sexual exploits, which didn’t make it to the page until 1970, when University of California Press released the first of nine volumes edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews.

In the 20th century, some of the most renowned biographers include Carl Sandburg, who published his first book about Abraham Lincoln, “The Prairie Years,” in 1926 (Blue Ribbon Books) and won a Pulitzer Prize for his follow-up in 1940 called “The War Years.” Charles Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of St. Louis” (1953, Scribner), which described the aviator’s non-stop, solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, also won a Pulitzer.

Sometimes novelists dabble in biography, the most famous example being Norman Mailer’s tomes on Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Gary Gilmore. And then there are journalists such as Walter Isaacson, who take on larger-than-life subjects such as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Steve Jobs. Conversely, in the case of Arianna Huffington, there are biographers who eventually become journalists—her peek under the covers into the stormy personal life of artist Pablo Picasso, “Creator and Destroyer,” was published in 1996.

In recent years, rock and pop musicians have turned to print as yet another outlet for their self expression. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones made headlines in 2011 when his drug-soaked autobiography, “Life,” cast an often uncomplimentary eye on bandmate Mick Jagger, including deflating observations about the singer’s anatomy. Punk rocker Patti Smith was no less candid in her memoir, “Just Kids,” 2010, which was mostly about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, but she won a National Book Award for her efforts. And even though Jimmy McDonough’s “Shakey,” 2003, is considered the definitive biography of rocker Neil Young, the singer/songwriter and collector of model trains released an autobiography called “Waging Heavy Peace" in 2012.

Still, in the United States, a substantial amount of high-quality ink has been spilled on presidents. In addition to Sandburg’s books on Lincoln there is Jean Edward Smith’s biog...

In a category by himself is John F. Kennedy, whose own collection of mini-biographies titled “Profiles in Courage,” 1955, proved a launching pad for his political career. Naturally, the assassinated leader was himself the subject of numerous biographies and histories, from Arthur Schlesinger's (“A Thousand Days,” 1965) to William Manchester's (“The Death of a President: November 1963,” 1967). Of course, because Kennedy’s ties to celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe made him a celebrity, too, he also got the Kitty Kelley treatment, albeit via a book about his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Google Book Search

Google Book Search

Want to do one quick search and pull up the mother lode of vintage books? Try Google Book Search, a database filled… [read review or visit site]

Bruce Black's gallery of paperback book covers from the 1940s and 50s. With help from numerous contributors, he's a… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Experiment In Autobiography By H.g. Wells - Hardcover - First Printing - Signed1885 Ulysses S Grant Personal Memoirs Civil War Slavery Confederacy Leather 1stPersonal Memoirs Of U.s. Grant 2 Vol Set 1st Edition 1885-86 Life Of Napoleon Antoine Henri Jomini 1863 Rare 2 Volume Set Two Volume SetLarge Leather Bound The Life Of Our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ -maps & Plates1888 Life Of Heber C. Kimball--orson F. Whitney--mormon Book--engravings!Lives Of The Saints Books And The Catholic Missal,the Prayer Book, The Life Of CYoung George Washington, Biography By Douglas Southall Freeman/2 Books/1948The Life Of Jesus Christ By J. James Tissot Books 1-3, 1903, Copyright 1900 Rare1888-mormon Book-life Of Joseph Smith, The Prophet-1st Ed.1924 Ethiopian Text Christian Legend Of Barlaam And Josaphat The Life Of BuddhaLot Of 3 Antique Religious Books Bible 1835 Harlan Page Memoir Key Of HeavenEaston Press The Autobiography Of Benjamin FranklinAmbrose Bierce, A Biography By Carey Mcwilliams, 1929, Vg, 1847 Men, Women And Books; A Selection Of Sketches, Essays And Critical Memoirs 1798 The Remarkable Passages In The Life Of The Hon Col James Gardiner 2011 Hb/dj Wwii Book: Memoirs Of Luftwaffe Fighter Pilot Gunther ScholzOriginal 1866 "the Life Of Abraham Lincoln" J.g.holland1891 Salesman’s Sample Life Of Sitting Bull Book Indian War By Fletcher Johnson Mark Twain's Burlesque Autobiography & First Romance, 1871Antique Biography Dictionary Lot 1825, 1832, 1865 - Leather & Fine BindingsMary Astor My Story 1959 Autobiography, Hard Cover With Dust Jacket1886 Appleton's Cyclopedia Of American Biography- 6 Book SetSidelights On History Industries & Social Life Of Scotland By Barbe 1st Hb 1919Gore Vidal. Point To Point Navigation.memoir. Signed 1st Ed.1st Pr ExcellentVintage Charles Dickens The Life Of Our Lord Book First Edition 1934 HardcoverThe Military Life Of Frederick The Great By Christopher Duffy, Easton PressLoyalties: A Son's Memoir By Carl Bernstein, Signed First Edition, Easton PressModern Library “the Death And Life Of Great American Cities” By Jane Jacobs Hc/dAntique Book The Life Of Jesus The Christ By Henry Ward Beecher 1871 1st EditionThe American Leonardo: The Life Of Samuel F. B. Morse By Mabee, Easton PressThe Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin Heritage Press - 1951 IllustratedCharles G Finney An AutobiographyGeneral Ulysses S. Grant Biography * Civil War * Vicksburg * Shiloh * 1901 1st Arthur Conan Doyle 2 Vintage Penguin 1st Memoirs & Case-book Of Sherlock HolmesAntique Life Of Christ – Handbook For Bible Classes 18911958-the Life Of Christ-fulton Sheen-birth,life,crucifixion,resurrectionGerman U-9 U-boat Book & Commander Otto Weddigen Biography Ww1 Imperial Navy Nr!1961-a Harmony Of The Gospels-r.heim-the Life Of Christ-religionPair Of Old Kenneth Grahame Books - Biography 1959 & Dream Days 19831902 The Heroic Life Of William Mckinley Our Third Martyr President Illustrated1934 Konstantin Zaitsev Ivan Bunin Biography Russian Book Russia Revolution War1655 Life Of Saint Margaret Carmelite Nun Marguerite Parigot Amelote CarmeliteThirty-three Years A Live Wire: Life Of John T Hatfield - Autobiography1968 E Stanley Jones A Song Of Ascents: A Spiritual Autobiography Signed1941 Basil Miller Biography Of George Muller The Man Of FaithAntique 1901 "the Illustrious Life Of William Mckinley" - Murat Halstead - SigneAndrew A Bonar The Biography Of Robert Murray M'cheyne1880 W Garden Blaikie The Personal Life Of David Livingstone