Biographies and Memoirs
Here is a list of some of my favorite memoirs by creative people and biographies of individuals famous for their creative contributions. In my view many memoirs & biographies fall short; the ones listed here stand out as especially well done. I do not list, for now, source materials, such as diaries, journals, and notebooks, because these are so voluminous and so variable. If you are interested in source materials for individuals I have studied, including Virginia Woolf, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Piet Mondrian, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Galileo, and John Maynard Keynes, consult my book or email me. Keep in mind that the amount of original source material that exists for an individual varies tremendously, from next to nothing to many items and thousands of pages. Now to the biographies and a few autobiographies I have found especially valuable.
Hans Krebs — Frederick Holmes
This is one of the most outstanding biographies ever written, about an eminent twentieth century scientist. Holmes was able to conduct detailed interviews with Krebs, combining this with careful study of his lab notebooks and a solid grasp of the chemistry and biochemistry of the time and the historical development of these fields. The result is a biography in which we are able to witness and trace Krebs' development with great exactitude both in the small - from one experiment to the next - and in the large.
The Road to Xanadu — John Livingston Lowes
I already described this in the Books about Creativity list. It's fascinating.
The Unknown Matisse — Hilary Spurling
A wonderfully written and insightful biography of Matisse to age 40 that illuminates his creative development. I found it very useful.
Faulkner: A Biography — Joseph Blotner
A rich, carefully constructed account of the first half (or slightly more) of Faulkner's life, tracing his development and describing his creative work. Less well known than Richard Ellmann's well known biography James Joyce, which is also very fine, but in my view its equal or more.
For Love of the World — Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
A lovely, beautifully textured biography of Hannah Arendt, weaving together an account of her personal life with her intellectual and professional development and achievements. My description of Arendt's development draws and builds on hers, though I structure mine more tightly and make some links she doesn't quite describe.
John Maynard Keynes — Robert Skidelsky
An impressive biography, in 3 volumes, that organizes the mass of material on Keynes and weaves a strong narrative. I don't agree with all the opinions, but do agree with the main thread - I offer my own account of some crucial linkages and phases in Keynes' development in chapter fifteen of my book.
Five volume biography of Dostoevsky — Joseph Frank
This is a careful, well done biography, focusing on linkages between Dostoevsky's life, evolving beliefs and conceptions, and literary career. I especially like volume 2, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, which cover Dostoevsky's arrest, time in prison camp in Siberia, spiritual transformation and rebirth, and return to freedom, and volume 3, The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865, Dostoevsky's awakening literary genius, leading up to his great creative period to come.
The Double Helix — James Watson
This is an autobiographical account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. It's a gem. Watson has a way of giving the essence, with a light, easy touch - I've read the book through several times, each time gaining greater insight. There are also several other accounts of the discovery of DNA and the advent of molecular biology. Quite well known and fun is Horace Judson's The Eighth Day of Creation. An excellent account in my view, taking a longer view, is A Century of DNA by Franklin Portugal and Jack Cohen.
Albert Einstein, "Autobiographical Notes," in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp
Remarkable for its lucidity. A very clear account by Einstein describing his own creative development as well as commentary on physics of his time.
Made in America — Sam Walton
Sam's autobiograpical account of his rise in business and the development of what became Walmart. His ingenuity, creativity, and sense of fun are all captivating, and his business acumen and competitive spirit come through.
Grinding It Out — Ray Kroc
Ray Kroc's autobiographical account of his development, focusing on his work life and experience and events leading to McDonald's. Candid, clear, with many insights. This is a terrific business autobiography.
Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist — Roger Lowenstein
A well-rounded and reasonably well-grounded biography of Buffett, drawing on both his own writings and Berkshire Hathaway documents as well as interviews with many associates and family. I would have liked a somewhat broader array of sources, and more context; but still it does a nice job of tracing Buffett's development, including the important influence of his teacher Ben Graham and the development of his approach to investment.
Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions — Richard Taruskin
Though I have not made a careful study of creative development of composers, this book stands out as a rich, culturally-rooted account, very much fitting with my own approach to creative development.
The Bishop's Boys — Tom Crouch
An excellent biography of the Wright Brothers, with the emphasis on Wilbur, the genius behind their prowess and development of the first truly functional fiying machine, combining a character study with a careful description of their creative work. Another good book describing the basis of their achievement is Peter Jakab, Visions of a Flying Machine.
Just Kids — Patti Smith
A beautifully written account of the creative development of Patti and her intimate friend Robert Mapplethorpe. It is lyrical, and recounts not only their early days in New York, but also provides glimpses into the creative development of each, especially Robert. The description of the series of their friendships and influences very much resonates with my view -- there are so many influences, many subterranean, in the path of a person's development.
Chronicles — Bob Dylan
A fascinating tale of Bob Dylan's life with many glimpses into his creative development, especially in the time leading up to his creative breakthrough in the early sixties. While one would have liked even more (Volume Two?) it provides many insights and has a grace and flow.
My Life in France — Julia Child, with Alex Prud'homme
Julia's own story of the development of her interest in cooking, how she acquired skill, and the origins of her involvement in the book project that became Mastering the Art of French Cooking. One gains an appreciation for the work involved to develop expertise, and how that in turn can be a springboard for a creative venture/career.