Biographies have existed as a literary genre for centuries. The earliest known examples are commemorative inscriptions inside ancient Egyptian tombs, and in the early second century CE, Greek and Roman literature started recording the lives of humans, not just gods. By the 18th century, biographical writing became more popular as writers aimed to document notable figures, and it was during this time that The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell was released, becoming a standout and a forerunner for the biographies we know today.
What made Boswell’s book somewhat of a blueprint for the modern biography was his approach to storytelling. He conducted interviews, did extensive research, and, in the end, gave a nuanced portrait of his subject. This trend continued throughout the 19th century, and exploded in popularity as the proliferation of radio, movies, and television gave us easier access to public figures, and fostered a celebrity culture obsession we still harbor to this day.
Biographies remain a beloved genre of literature. A good biography, whether the subject is a participant or not, will give a detailed, accurate portrayal of the person’s life, while providing context for their significance — and of course, revealing never-before-known insider information never hurts, either. But these books are more than a source of education — they can be wildly inspiring. Here are some inspirational quotes from biographies about such notable figures as Joan of Arc, Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, and more.
Power does not listen with honest ears to the whispers of the powerless.Joseph M. Marshall III, "The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History"
She had been an exceptional leader in an exceptional moment — a miraculous anomaly who, by the will of heaven, had transformed the landscape in which she stood.Helen Castor, "Joan of Arc: A History"
And thus it was that an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.Walter Isaacson, "Einstein: His Life and Universe"
In the end, right answers and true stories have a positive cascading effect because they illuminate.Annette Gordon-Reed, "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family"
His was the other road to freedom, that of dedication to his craft.Andrew Hodges, "Alan Turing: The Enigma"
A profound dislike for merely absorbing knowledge and a strong compulsion to learn by doing is one of the most reliable signs of genius.Sylvia Nasar, "A Beautiful Mind"
King offered racists the other cheek, Malcolm the back of his hand. Freedom was so important to him that Malcolm counseled risking all, except one’s sense of self-respect, in the fight.Les Payne and Tamara Payne, "The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X"
The signatures were engraved inside each Macintosh. No one would ever see them, but the members of the team knew that their signatures were inside, just as they knew that the circuit board was laid out as elegantly as possible.Walter Isaacson, "Steve Jobs"
He was the ornament, the object, a former piece of property who could speak and write, who could match wits and logic with even his most determined critics.David W. Blight, "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom"
If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft.Ron Chernow, "Alexander Hamilton"
Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: They reproduced an entire generation every 24 hours, and they never stopped.Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. had always adored his name. He had said it reminded him of a Roman gladiator, that it was the prettiest name he had ever heard, perfect for the prettiest and greatest heavyweight champion of all time. But now Elijah Muhammad called on him to abandon the name, and the boxer agreed without hesitation.Jonathan Eig, "Ali: A Life"
She imagined a world where men transformed themselves alongside women and where sexual and reproductive freedom was grounded in women’s equality, and then she worked to make it real.Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, "Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg"
The Little House books are not history. Yet the truth about our history is in them. The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is there, if we look for it. Anyone who would ask where we came from, and why, must reckon with them.Caroline Fraser, "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder"
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