While an autobiography and a biography both tell the story of someone’s life, they are not the same thing. When a person writes his or her own life story, the finished work is an autobiography. When an author writes a book about another person’s life, the result is a biography.
While there are some similarities between biographies and autobiographies, there are several notable differences between the two types of books.
- Authorship: Who writes the book is the primary difference between an autobiography and a biography. An autobiography is always written by the person the book is about. A biography is always written by someone other than the subject of the book.
- Point of View: An autobiography is usually written in first person point of view (I, me, my) since the book is about the author’s own experiences. A biography is typically written in third person point of view (she, her, hers, he, him, his) since the author is describing someone else’s experiences.
- Authorized vs. Unauthorized: Authorized means that the book is written with the permission and cooperation of the person the book is about, while unauthorized means that it is not. While a biography can be authorized or unauthorized, an autobiography is always authorized.
- Degree of objectivity: A biography tends to be more objective than an autobiography. Biography writers typically gather information through a journalistic research project that includes reviewing records of events and interviews with the subject of the book and other people. An autobiography author typically bases the content on his or her recollections of events as they took place rather than incorporating input from other sources.
Biographies and autobiographies do share some elements in common.
- Primary purpose: The primary purpose of both types of books is to give an account of a person’s life.
- Non-fiction: Both biographies and autobiographies are works of nonfiction that represent events that occur during a person’s life.
- Notable subjects: The people whose stories are told in biography or autobiography form tend to be people who are widely known for their accomplishments, such as celebrities, athletes, business leaders, political leaders, and other high-profile individuals.
While a memoir is written by the individual the book is about, it is not exactly the same as an autobiography.
- An autobiography typically tells the overall story of the author’s life, following a timeline through the person’s formative years until the time the book is published. A formal, fact-based writing style is used.
- A memoir covers a much shorter period than an autobiography, focusing on a specific event or aspect of an individual’s life rather than telling the full story. A memoir tends to have a more casual, emotive tone.
There are numerous examples of widely-read biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.
Journalist and author Walter Isaacson shares the life story of one of the most influential figures in the technology industry in his biography of Steve Jobs. To tell this story, Isaacson spent more than two years researching Jobs’ life, interviewing well over 100 people who knew him. By piecing together accounts from those who lived, loved, worked with, competed with, and were influenced by Jobs, the author was able to tell the story of this unique individual’s life in biography form.
In I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai shares the story of her extraordinary life. As a child in Pakistan, she became an outspoken advocate for education at a very young age. As a result, at the age of 15, she was shot in the head by members of the Taliban. She recovered, returned to school, and went on to speak about her experiences at the United Nations. In addition to writing her autobiography, she founded the Malala Fund, a nonprofit committed to worldwide access to education for girls, and became the youngest person honored with a Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.
Trevor Noah, best known as a stand-up comedian and host of The Daily Show, shares insights into another aspect of his life in Born a Crime. This memoir focuses on Noah’s early days as the multiracial child of a black mother and white father growing up in South Africa during apartheid. During this time, interracial relationships were against the law in his country, so Noah’s very existence was unlawful. Written in a light, storytelling style that is both touching and funny, this memoir provides unique insights into the author’s upbringing in difficult times under extraordinary circumstances.
Reading works of nonfiction about the lives and experiences of interesting people can be very educational. Sometimes these books are entertaining, sometimes they are motivating, and sometimes they are heartbreaking. Regardless, they are always informative. Expand your horizons by reading all kinds of books, including biographies, inspiring autobiographies, and powerful memoirs.