Autobiographies are neat. They offer readers a glimpse of past events from the perspective of the author, some of whom themselves were key figures in history. If you are on the hunt for some great underrated autobiographies to read on a Saturday evening, here are our top ten recommendations.
10. My Inventions
Compiled and edited by Ben Johnston, My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola tesla is a personal account narrating the peculiar and eventful life of the reclusive inventor. The book is divided into six chapters with an addition of a 16-page introduction from the editor.
Fluidly written, the relatively short reading is rich in detail and doesn’t fail to fully engage the reader. Going through this first-hand account, you will clearly come to find that history hasn’t done enough justice to this brilliant mind and a lot of technology that makes our modern existence possible can be credited to his tireless yet underappreciated work.
9. Hitler’s Last Secretary
For two and a half years right until Hitler’s suicide, Traudl Junge served as his private secretary. Directly working under him, she was given the chance to observe and know the Nazi dictator in ways few other individuals had access to.
Apolitical and frank, the book is an engrossing insider account of a young naïve woman of her day to day interaction with the monster and paints a very contrasting image of Hitler, one different from the ruthless and cruel figure history has come to reveal him as.
8. The Education of Henry Adams
Winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize and widely considered as one of the best English non-fictions of the 20th century, The Education of Henry Adams is a story of a man trying to come to terms with the world that is so contrastingly different from the one of his youth.
The book offers itself as a sharp critique of outdated school systems of the time, with the author narrating how his own ‘proper’ schooling failed to amount to anything useful. He goes on to narrate his own journey of ‘self-education’ through building experiences, forming friendships and reading.
Henry Adams was an acclaimed historian and journalist belonging to a politically influential family in Boston, which included two U.S Presidents.
7. Panzer Leader
Written while imprisoned by the Allies after the war’s end, Panzer Leader is a candid narrative of the general’s service in the Wehrmacht, including his role in formulating the infamous Blitzkrieg tactic and first-hand account of the various campaigns he took part in.
In this book, he also shares his views on what would have let Germany to victory and what ensured that it didn’t. Scattered throughout his account are also rare insider portraits of key figures in the Nazi establishment.
Written will fullness and clarity that military historian would appreciate, Panzer Leader is a definite memoir to read for those interested in perspectives from the other side of the great conflict.
6. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant
Composed during the last years of the former president and civil war general’s lifetime and published by friend and celebrated writer, Mark Twain. the work has been highly acclaimed by military historians and literary critics.
The memoirs primarily focus on Grant’s military career, from his days in West Point as a young cadet to him overseeing the conclusion of the American Civil War as General of the Army.
In sharp contrast from the literacy trends of the time, Grant’s writing is noted for its simplicity, clarity, and impartialness, managing to recreate an account of his life in extremely vivid terms.
Autobiographies, of course, is a genre you will find virtually non-existent in the antiquated world, which is why Libanius’ is such a rare treasure. Comprising of over 1,600 letters, 64 speeches and 96 rhetorical exercise, the writings of Libanius offer itself to readers as a valuable primary source of Roman life in the 4th century. His work offers details on various subjects, from detailing the life of Emperor Julian, who Libanius was a great admirer of, to culture and customs of the late Roman society.
Born in 314 AD, Libanius lived in the midst of an Empire that was rapidly changing. His life spanned the reign of six Roman emperors, from Constantine to Theodosius and witnessed the end of the classical age as Christianity rose to prominence and the city-centered culture of old gave way to a new feudal order.
4. My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography
Because of the prominent role he played during the Communist Revolution, Trotsky remains a widely controversial figure. However, from a historian’s standpoint, his autobiography is worth reading.
Being the only Bolshevik leader to write his memoirs, his autobiography offers an unparalleled first-person account of the rise of the revolutionary wave in Russia and early intrigues within the Communist party.
Surprisingly engaging to read, the book is highly recommended for those seeking to understand Trotsky in his own words or just looking for more material on one of the most tumultuous periods in Russian history.
Kamo no Chōmei
The flowing river never stops and yet the water never stays the same. Foam floats upon the pools, scattering, re-forming, never lingering long. So, it is with man and all his dwelling places here on earth.”
A Japanese literary classic, Hōjōki or An Account of My Hut, is the work of an early 13th-century court poet and Buddhist monk, Kamo no Chōmei. The work explores the Buddhist concept of impermanence through the narration of various disasters that befell on the people of the Japanese capital, Kyoto.
He also recounts parts of his own life and experience; his transition from a respected member of the Imperial court to a recluse living largely isolated from society in a ten-foot hut in the woods.
Beautifully written and intensely human, Chōmei’s work, while short, is a timeless piece that reaches out from the past and resonates deeply with our own modern experiences.
2. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind…Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth.”
Among the most prominent philosophers and political activists of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell is acclaimed as one of the founders of analytic philosophy and his works have had a profound influence on such diverse fields as mathematics, linguistics, logic, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and epistemology.
Compelling, vivid and beautifully written, his autobiography brilliantly captures the details of his life which the reader soon finds to be just as interesting and unorthodox as were his views for the time. While the thick volume certainly demands a good amount of investment in time, for those who looking to learn more about this extraordinary individual, it will be well worth it.
1. Such, Such Were the Joys
Eric Arthur Blair
… some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So, for all practical purposes, the lie will have become truth …”
Such, Such Were the Joys is a 10-piece collection of autobiographical essays by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair). The book takes its name from the title of the largest of these accounts, narrating a relatively short but critical part of the acclaimed author’s noteworthy life.
At age 8, Blair was enrolled at the prestigious boarding school, St. Cyprian, on a scholarship. There he was subject to all sorts of misery and discrimination as a result of his middle-class background. The conditions he faced there would go on to greatly influence the author’s literary career, particularly his two most celebrated novels – Animal Farm and 1984.
Other sections of the book discuss other key chapters of life, ranging from his experience in the Spanish Civil War to his personal journey in becoming a writer.
True to the author’s writing style, the language in the book is both clear and compelling, as brilliant as in his other famous works but perhaps more so as it narrates real-life events.
Also worth checking out: 10 Books Every History Buff Should Read