Why I love autobiographies
Wings of Fire was the first book I’d read in my life. Back then, I was brooding over having been allotted ‘section-B’ in the ninth standard. The bruised pride had turned the happy-go-lucky trouble master into a diligent bookworm, and it was on a visit to buy coursework that I’d picked Dr. Kalam’s autobiography. Bookstores in Guwahati stocked up on that one ahead of the exam season.
The book was ladled with concepts beyond my capabilities. But the concepts of propulsion, or the importance of red fuming nitric acid, were no impediments to celebrating the rise of that boy from Rameshwaram to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. To this day, when faced with failure, I think back to Dr. Kalam’s courage post SLV-3’s unfortunate dip into the Bay of Bengal.
The same successes that propel individuals into greatness also make them appear distant. How’s a kid in section-B supposed to feel inspired by the achievements of people who would clearly have been in section-A?
An autobiography, however, exposes you to the failures in the lives of the legends. You can see chinks in their armor, just like the ones in you own. Their position suddenly seems attainable.
Here’s an excerpt from Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, a dialgue between him and his chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, over getting Iranian leader Khameini to start negotiating:
Rahm: “Guess he’s not unclenching his fist anytime soon,”
Obama: “Only enough to give me the middle finger,”
Those two lines can humanize the world’s most powerful man for me. He was not the black-tie leader reading scripted comments from an ornate podium, but a human who faced uncertainties and challenges like the rest of us. It made his personality more relatable, and his success more attainable.
True — autobiographies can have biases. True — biographies written by professionals can be more accurate. But who better to tell your story than you yourself? And what can inspire more — a character sketch or a firsthand life story?
Reading autobiographies is like having a conversation with someone way out of your reach, possibly someone that existed centuries ago. They’re usually the best places to turn to, both for inspiration and for advice. You get to peek into the minds that have shaped history and in many ways your own life. And as you become privy to the depths they’ve risen from, you expand the horizon of your own ambitions.
Who knows, you might find your ideas resembling those of your heroes, setting the stage for another memoir: one in your name.
. . .