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Three Great Autobiographies About Very Different Subjects

I like these things!

I like these things!

Since I learned how to read yesterday, I spent the whole afternoon with these book things.  They’re really good!  Especially these autobiographies I grabbed.

You may have heard that “everyone has a story worth hearing.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. Either way, I have read some terrible autobiographies. For every wonderful book like The Burn Journals , there’s a terrible book like…

Well, I won’t do that. The good news is, we wouldn’t know what the great books were without the terrible ones. And with that, here are three amazing autobiographies about people you will want to know better…or not.

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Essentially, a young boy’s highly unstable mother leaves him with her therapist, who sort of adopts him. The therapist and his family are much crazier than the mother ever was. The story that follows is disturbing, hilarious, sad, and occasionally horrifying.  I don’t want to give more away than that.

One criticism I’ve heard of Burroughs is that he’s more interested in fireworks than feelings. His stories are so good that I honestly don’t care what his motivations are for writing and structuring his memoirs.

Running With Scissors is so off the wall that I can totally believe it’s true.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

At the height of civil unrest in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah loses his entire way of life when it is destroyed by violence and madness.  He is eventually grabbed by a militia and indoctrinated.  Soon he is a young, young soldier fighting in a war.

The most unnerving thing about this book is watching Beah’s feelings about violence change from revulsion to reluctance to acceptance to finally craving it.  After being “rescued” by UNICEF he writes a section about “needing” the violence that absolutely rattled my teeth.

When this child begins to regret the atrocities he has committed, it made me cry through the last twenty pages.   Beah is now an admirable man coming to terms with a situation that seems incomprehensible to most of the world.  A Long Way Gone is beautiful, awful, and unforgettable.

If you read this and like it, check out my review of What Is The What? for another book with similar themes and stories.

Ex Libris: Confessions Of A Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

I love books about books.  Ex Libris is a wonderful little (literally, this book is tiny in height and width) book about books, literature and words.  It’s a love letter to writing and authors and anyone who loves this stuff.

Fadiman is charming and funny and sweet and she makes me want to pick her up and put her in my pocket.  That’s about all I need to say about this book.  It’s not quite an autobiography, but it’s close enough for me.  You can learn a lot about someone from the the books they read and the way they talk about their reading habits.

And now I can’t resist one more.  The absolute best book about books of all time, now and forever, is A Gentle Madness by Nicolas Basbanes.  Accept it!  I don’t want to hear any sass about this.  Sheer perfection and some of the craziest stories about book people you’ve ever heard.

We are the gently mad, my friends.  Life is good in the asylum.


PS: I’m going to sneak Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession into this post. It’s a great autobiography about his struggle after losing his faith.

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  • Suzannah-Write It Sideways October 9, 2009, 1:28 am

    Looking forward to reading ‘Running with Scissors.’ I’d heard about it, then forgot about it, so thanks for the reminder.

    Oh, and glad you can read. Cruel. Very cruel.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 9, 2009, 9:00 am

      @Suzannah: Thanks. I’m glad too. Not being able to read would make this all a lot harder. Let me know when you get to Running With Scissors.

      @Pete: It’s easy learning in a dream. All I had to do was snore.

  • Panayiotis Pete Karabetis October 9, 2009, 6:15 am

    I’ve gone to the library twice trying to borrow Running with Scissors, but always get a stupid Blogging for Dummies book or something.

    Was it hard learning how to read? 🙂

  • Casey October 9, 2009, 7:17 am

    Looks like my reality show plans are on permanent hold… Think you could forget how to read Josh and go to camp so ican make tons of money?

    • Josh Hanagarne October 9, 2009, 8:57 am

      @Casey: I can try. I bet if you invent a rocket that runs on water you could also make tons of money.

  • Heather October 9, 2009, 8:58 am

    OMG! I’ve read the Gently Mad title, as well as Matthew Battles’s book about libraries! Bibliophiles ROCK! Thanks for the suggestions! BOMB YER TV!

  • Leah October 9, 2009, 10:00 am

    Great timing– I’m going to the library in a few minutes, and to Borders after that! Thanks for the tips!

    • Josh Hanagarne October 9, 2009, 12:04 pm

      Leah, let me know how they go if you read any or all of these. You’re a genius and your opinion is always a super, ultra, mega treasure.

  • TIC (Ben) October 9, 2009, 12:20 pm

    Great recommendations, Josh! I’m quite partial to Timebends by Arthur Miller, and Chronicles by Bob Dylan. I’ve read them both several times. Do you think it’s a different experience to read the autobiography a person whose work you hold in high regard as opposed to reading an autobiography with no frame of reference, like a child that wanders into a movie theatre…?

    • Josh Hanagarne October 9, 2009, 12:38 pm

      TIC: I’m sure there’s some influence. When I read Johnny Cash’s biography I was so excited that I couldn’t possibly have been objective about it. I’m never heard of Timebends, and I haven’t read Chronicles. I’ll give them a go and let you know.

  • Casey October 9, 2009, 2:38 pm

    Actually Josh, Perdue Univ just launched a rocket made up of aluminum powder and water ice! Aluminum is a pretty common fuel for rockets, and the water ice serves as a matrix/binder when heated breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen to serve as the oxidizer!

    Mumbo jumbo aside it’s a very elegant solution in my opinion.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 9, 2009, 2:54 pm

      Casey, I’ll take your word for it. Elegant is not something I know much about. Or science. Or rockets.

  • Mary W. October 9, 2009, 6:24 pm

    I have to say I 100% agree about Ex Libris and A Gentle Madness! I loved them both. I haven’t read the others, though. Thanks for the recommendations!

    • Josh Hanagarne October 9, 2009, 6:33 pm

      Mary, you’re welcome. Good luck and let me know if you read the others. Basbanes has another book called Among The Gently Mad, but I haven’t read it. Have you?

  • Courtney_182 October 9, 2009, 7:09 pm

    Running with Scissors is fantastically wild….did you see the movie, too? Of course, as people always say, the book was better, but the movie was still very entertaining.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 9, 2009, 7:57 pm

      Courtney, I didn’t see the movie. A lot of people I trust hated it, which isn’t fair to the movie. I’m sure I’ll see it eventually.

  • Mary W. October 10, 2009, 12:45 am

    I did read Among the Gently Mad, but I’ll be honest–it wasn’t nearly as good. If you’re an actual rich rare book collector, it could have been a lot more interesting and useful, but for the average book lover with limited resources it didn’t really do that much for me. If you want to read my Goodreads reviews (www.goodreads.com), you can search for me under the email address mishqueen@hotmail.com.

  • Hazra October 10, 2009, 1:37 am

    Great recommendations! I’m not actually much of a non-fiction reader, and I have managed to complete only a handful of autobiographies. But these books sound interesting, especially A Long Way Gone. I’ve also heard good stuff about Ex Libris; a book about books is always enjoyable.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 10, 2009, 7:20 am

      Hazra: I’m with you. When things got too unbalanced, I promised myself I’d real one non-fiction book for every fiction book. It’s probably closer to 1:3 nf/F, but I’m making my peace with it.

      @Mary W: I’ll check it out. I love good reads. And here’s me on Librarything if you ever want a shelf to browse:

  • Victoria Vargas October 10, 2009, 9:58 am

    I totally agree about Ex Libris and A Gentle Madness. I had the pleasure of meeting Nick Basbane at a book signing in El Paso. He is humble, charming, and a delightful correspondent. We exchanged several emails and I can say that he is as delightful a person as his books are to read. Read all of them. They’re fabulous!