Biographies: My Top Five

My love of storytelling is probably why my favorite non-fiction reading has always been biography. I first remember delving into biography when I was in High School, I was a voracious reader, and so was on the lookout for new areas of interest once I’d already exhausted all the mystery, historical and science fiction in the school library.

Biographies can be a much more accessible way to learn about history because the subject is essentially a protagonist. I expect this is why A&E’s Biography show was so successful. For me though, a one hour segment is too superficial. I much prefer reading a book.

All biographies are not created equal. Some are easy to read and some are hard work. One of my favorite fiction writers wrote one of the most unreadable autobiographies I’ve ever tried to read. Autobiographers must not only list facts, they need to open up to the reader (or at least leave the reader feeling that they have). Most of the biographies I’ve read have been good, some for telling about an interesting life, some for being well written.

In fact I’m old enough that if I find myself halfway through a biography that hasn’t engaged me I’ll put it down. Life is too short and there is too much good stuff to read.

Of all the biographies I’ve read (and I’ve a heap I have yet to read), these are my favorites. I haven’t read any of them for quite a while, but they will all be re-read at least once more.

Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Leaming

Orson Welles:
A Biography by Barbara Leaming

Undoubtedly a brilliant man, Welles frightened the world with an alien invasion on radio, was the radio voice of “The Shadow”, angered one of the most powerful men in the world with his cinema masterpiece “Citizen Kane” and he married Rita Hayworth. Orson Welles was an incredibly interesting guy, This biography is one of the weirdest biography/autobiographies I’ve ever found, but it was delicious. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a kind of cat and mouse game between the biographer and the formidable Mr. Welles. Well worth a read.

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

I discovered Agatha Christie mysteries when I first started reading for fun in my teens. Inadvertently beginning with her first book (“The Secret Adversary”), Christie’s books were easy to lay hands on my an older sister was a big Miss Marple fan. So I read everything she wrote that I could find. Over the years I’ve heard people denigrate Christie’s writing as being simple and formulaic. Having gone back and re-read many of her books, I disagree. She did invent a kind of formula, but the stories were not formulaic. Her writing stands up today on re-reading as being just as good as I remember it.

When I discovered that my Dad had found her autobiography at a yard sale, I borrowed it. It was if anything more incredible reading than any one of her books. She led an interesting life. In fact, she opened up and shared herself enough that I felt I got to know her as a person not an abstraction. I loved this autobiography so much that I made a point of not returning it to my Dad until I’d gotten my hands on a copy for myself.

(That was in the days when you couldn’t be sure of finding the missing used books for your collection on, or

To the Stars: George Takei

George Takei: To The Stars

The trekkie in me bought this book but it was a very good read. Mr. Takei is a brilliant and engaging man, and he writes very well indeed. The thing that I was totally unprepared for was the dynamite buried in his childhood.

Autograph from the '76 Toronto Trek Convention

As a Japanese American Takei spent a chunk of his World War II childhood in an American Detention Camp. He manages to both minimize the horrors with the breeziness of childhood resilience, but at the same time the adult writer in him makes the evil of the whole exercise very clear. Very heavy in parts, but worth it.

I actually encouraged my ten year old to read it for the first person account of history.  And George Takei’s ability to look at life with wry wit makes the later bits both interesting and readable.

And of course all of Mr. Sulu’s fans will get a huge kick out of the behind the scenes Star Trek gossip.  It is a good solid biography, though, not mere fan fare.

You can visit to catch up with him nowadays.

Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir
by Garson Kanin

Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir by Garson Kanin

This one is a little bit different because it is a biography of a couple. Written by their friend, writer/director Garson Kanin, this is the story of the bitter sweet off-screen relationship of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.

The combination of societies mores and his own catholic upbringing prevented movie star Spenser Tracy from divorcing his wife to marry Hepburn

Kanin makes it clear in this biography that had circumstances been different these two would have been happily married.

Kanin’s connection with his friends combined with his story telling ability brings his subjects alive, making this a very accessible read.

Stompin’ Tom: Before The Fame
by Stompin’ Tom Connors

Stompin' Tom: Before The Fame

Stompin’ Tom Connors is a Canadian icon. He was the first performer to actually write songs about Canada because he wanted to. And once begun, he wrote song after song about this land of ours. He does not have a beautiful singing voice, but his songs are incredibly engaging. Many of them cause me to laugh out loud.

Stompin’ Tom is a consummate showman, the ultimate self made man. But more than anyone living, Stompin’ Tom has given Canadians an identity to hang their hats on. I doubt that there’s a Canadian alive who has NOT heard of this man. Certainly every Canadian performing artist knows his name.

Connors travelled back and forth across Canada making a living as an entertainer, which is where he amassed his storehouse of material for songs and stories. But no record label would record him. So he recorded himself.

After becoming successful and even internationally known, incredibly Stompin Tom went on to do battle with dragons to fight for Canadian Content regulations to protect and support the young entertainers coming up after him. Pure class.

Of course, that’s not what this first volume of his autobiography is about. It’s about the hellacious childhood that the boy born Tommy Messer survived. It’s about a child torn from a young mother who had no support in a world without effective help for its weakest citizens. Its about injustice and hope.

This is probably the best biography I’ve ever read because Connors brings you right into his childhood, and makes you feel what it was like. The fact that he spoke so candidly and honestly about things that obviously hurt him deeply is why this book was such a mega hit in Canada. He made people understand.

I am amazed that this man has been able to accomplish so much in his life after the childhood he endured. He has survived and has triumphed, and has principles he believes in and stands up for. Stompin’ Tom Connors is willing and able to work selflessly for the betterment of the community. He’s downright inspirational.

Canada Post just honored Stompin’ Tom by putting him on a stamp.

But it was this biography that made Stompin’ Tom my hero.



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