“The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it.” – James Bryce
I find that one of the best ways to learn about humanity, history and the world in general is through reading biographies and memoirs. Opening the pages of a biography book is learning about the details of a person’s entire life from birth to death and the major events that transpired and the obstacles that the person has to overcome in his or her lifetime. It is inspiring to read about someone’s personal journey of triumphs and tribulations. And it does help me to understand and appreciate the person I am reading about in his or her own peculiar way. One’s life story, I find, is full of conflicts either with themselves, or God, or other people and sometimes conflict with nature. As each biography and memoir book is written in a personal fashion, each story effortlessly cites and parallels situations I sometimes find myself in. Each story is usually filled with drama, suspense, romance and enough interesting twists and turns and when I read a biography book, I learn proofs of these assertion in time past. More often than not, they are heart-wrenching and captivating that sometimes I couldn’t put the book down till I turned to the last page.
I have loved books since my youth. But there is something about biography and memoir books that really draw me in, like a magnet, or a dream, or both. It is significant that both my mother and father loved to read. Growing up, my mother loved to read romantic novels especially by the world-renown English novelist Barbara Cartland and having these novels in every room of the house, I have read quite a few of them but have discovered that I much prefer non-fiction material. So I turned to my father’s books. My father was a wide reader but he relished history books. I had vivid memories of my father telling me stories about the Battle of Waterloo and about the global explorations made by Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan and many other prominent explorers of the early centuries. My father had indeed greatly influenced me in this field that the age of nine, I have read for myself books on The Battle of Waterloo and gained a bit of knowledge about Napoleon Bonaparte, The Duke of Wellington and many other war heroes of the same era. I have fond memories of my father encouraging me to read ‘The Jaws’ when the movie first came out. He took me to the cinema to watch the film after I was done reading the book. The movie had become more real and exciting to me after learning about the story on paper.
There is however, one exceptional book that I fell in love with. Reading in my pre-teens “The Diary of A Young Girl” by Anne Frank had truly captivated my unsophisticated mind. Back then for an ingenue like me, the story of this precocious young Jewish girl encapsulates perfectly what it means to have an unflinching determination in the midst of a horrific circumstance. Inspite of everything, Anne Frank wrote, I still believe that people are still good at heart.” Her unique view and insight into the events of the time and the traces of her emotional growth deeply resonates within me. Her words seem to evoke the best version of myself. For a child whose imagination was fired by reading history books, I dreamt about visiting the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam and the Second World War concentration camps in Auschwitz, Germany and Poland. I also dreamt about traveling the world just like Marco Polo and other early explorers I have read about have done in their lifetime. My reading preferences and predilections for biography and memoir books however, is greatly attributed to reading Anne Frank’s diary. And I must add, in modesty, that I have become a fast reader as a result of reading numerous books early on in life.
As my favourite part of one’s life story is the specific contribution and legacy that the person made that give him or her a special status in history, here’s some of the biographies and memoirs I have read in the past that made an impact on me.
Rose Kennedy’s “Time to Remember” was both controversial and inspirational. I enjoyed the history and the intimate details she shared about her family. It’s personally fascinating to read the social experiments she practiced on her children. The family victories and tragedies were well presented from a matriarch point of view and although I do not agree with her political views, I am intrigued at how a mother had instilled in her young children moral values that motivated their service to their country and others. By marrying Joseph Kennedy, an ultimately successful man and having an equally famous children, I came to a conclusion that Rose Kennedy seems to be really the mastermind behind the Kennedy children.
“An American Life” by Ronald Reagan. I’ve read numerous presidential biographies and Reagan’s is one of the most compelling and influential. This memoir was both uplifting and inspiring that truly captures the optimistic and cheerful spirit of Pres. Reagan. He was humorous and unpretentious in relating the story of an ordinary American family living an ordeal of daily life. He chronicles his journey from his humble beginnings to the pinnacle of power in the White House. “That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” Reagan declares. He takes you into his heart and mind, showing you the values and principles he learned from his mom on serving God and conquering evil and the steps he took in having that motivation to change the world.
“My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.” by Coretta Scott King, the wife of the great civil rights leader has remarkably chronicled intimate details of her and her husband’s life. Life was admittedly tumultuous for her but she was able to maintain some shade of normality for her children in the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement. Examples of racial discrimination by reading her account and those who have endured and survived through the hatred is narrated in the memoir. She was admirably a true helpmate and she has provided the support her husband needed both in the church and in his social advocacy. Since I am involved in a similar kind of work, I am trying to draw some lessons from it for purposes of sustaining a ‘faithful service’ in the context of my very own ministry as a pastor’s wife. The book was a very compelling testimony and I was completely riveted at the events following the death of her husband. Martin said about Coretta in the “Biography of Martin Luther King Jr” : “I am indebted to my wife Coretta, without whose live, sacrifices and loyalty neither life nor work would bring fulfillment. She has given me words of consolation when I needed them and a well-ordered home where Christian love is a reality.”
“The Autobiography of George Mueller” by George Mueller taught me a lesson on prayer and God’s provision . . . “to pray without ceasing” as Mr Mueller pointed out. He is a great example of a man who had discovered time and time again God’s amazing answer to his prayers, sometimes at the last minute when the hundreds of needy orphans had nothing to live on for the day. I find his testimony incredible and it has strengthened my prayer life.
“Surprised by Joy” by CS Lewis. I am a great fan of the allegorical Narnia Chronicles which I’ve read in my pre-teens yet I had no inkling that its author was a Christian until after I had become a believer myself. Reading the pages of this memoir back in college, Mr. Lewis’ story spoke to me in an exceptional way: that just like him, “I had no joy” before I had become a Christian. This is a spiritual journey scribbled in a deep, poetic and philosophical manner. The influence his parents, schooling and certain events that shaped his perspective and personality is clearly laid out in the book. The highlight of the book is of course, his conversion from atheism to theism, and then to believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Perhaps it is passé to believe that all memoirs could reach up from the page and touch anyone on the heart. But I keep reading them. I draw inspiration and guidance from the examples of others who had the courage to write the stories of their own lives. I sometimes discover that I have a lot in common with some of the people about those lives I have read. Some part of the story resonate with me in a way that only someone who has gone through the same experience would truly understand. There’s indeed a lot of life lessons that I can learn from reading about the lives of others. It inspires me to follow their examples of courage and determination to overcome trials and affliction. Ultimately, it’s amazing to discover God’s unique plan and purpose in the lives of others.