My love of memoirs began in a class I took in college. In the course, we learned how to frame stories and how to consider what elements were vital to drive the narrative forward, and which were just filler. It helped to reshape how I crafted my own personal essays, but it also gave me a new appreciation for reading both memoirs and biographies. Our stories, when shared, have the power to influence the lives of others.
In recent months, while seeking distraction from the events of the world, I’ve gravitated once again to reading stories of people’s lives. They remind me that no matter your circumstances, it is possible to rise above and to find joy and meaning in both ordinary and extraordinary days.
Here are a few books that demonstrate the beauty — and possibility — of resilience.
“The Meaning of Mariah Carey” by Mariah Carey
When I was a teenager, I discovered Mariah Carey’s music and became a fan of her exceptional vocal abilities and songwriting skills. Prior to developing a chronic illness, I had been serious about playing the piano and dreamed of pursuing a career in music. When I got sick, my path changed, but music remained a source of solace and comfort. But despite being a fan of Carey’s albums, I was unaware of her personal struggles that included a difficult upbringing and experience of racial tensions. Her memoir reminded me that all that glitters is not gold, but, no matter what path you take, it is possible to overcome challenges and use your gifts to bring joy to others.
“Becoming” by Michelle Obama
In “Becoming,” former First Lady Michelle Obama shares how of all the positions she has held, her high-profile role as First Lady gave her “a platform like nothing I could have imagined.” While admiring Michelle Obama’s poise, intelligence, and grace as First Lady, I rarely stopped to consider the enormous pressure that the role involves.
While my personal pursuits have been far removed from the world of politics, and I have not been subjected to public scrutiny, I greatly admire Obama’s resilience. Through all of her many different roles, she has sought to retain a sense of peace and focus on the work that is important to her. Her frequently used mantra, “When they go low, we go high” is one that I have sought to apply to my daily life. The book offers a glimpse behind the scenes of what could arguably be considered one of the most high-profile roles in the world — one that the person did not actively seek herself, but that she more than successfully fulfilled.
“Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson
When I was a kid, I would sprawl out on the living room floor and look at the collection of art and art history books my parents kept in our living room. As an adult, few experiences have been as breathtaking as seeing the Mona Lisa in person at The Louvre for the first time. The line was long and visitors were shuffled by the painting quickly, but its exquisiteness was readily apparent. The painting has a rich and storied history, and the life of its creator was equally astounding.
Born in humble circumstances, da Vinci had no formal training beyond apprenticeships, yet mastered not only the visual arts, but also feats of engineering far ahead of his time. As a writer, I am constantly drawn to making connections between different ideas and to seeing patterns while striving to better understand the world around me. While my skill set is certainly not comparable to that of da Vinci’s, I strive to maintain a curiosity about the world and a willingness to continually learn, discover– and perhaps most importantly, try. This book left me admiring even more a historical figure I had already found fascinating.
“The Book of Gutsy Women” by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton
Growing up, the accomplishments of women were noticeably absent in my history books, other than a few token mentions. As an adult, I’ve sought to fill in those gaps and learn about the incredible achievements of those history has overlooked. I wish that I had had a book like The Book of Gutsy Women while I was growing up. Easily readable, informative, and engaging, this book features short biographies of luminaries like environmentalist Rachel Carson, 19th Century inventor and mathematician Ada Lovelace, and pioneer of modern nursing Florence Nightingale. The Clintons’ book highlights how women have achieved extraordinary things.
“Who Was” book series by various authors
For the young readers in your life, the “Who Was” book series is particularly engaging. I stumbled upon the books through my library when I was searching for a book I could read with my 13-year-old niece. These biographies are written by several different authors and highlight the lives of historical figures like Marie Antoinette, Claude Monet, and Mother Teresa, as well as contemporary figures like Bono, Michelle Obama, and Dolly Parton. Each book offers a snapshot into the life of the subject and humanizes their tales. For example, while I had heard of Dolly Parton’s extensive philanthropic work, I didn’t know how the extreme poverty she grew up in shaped her thinking and sparked her generosity.
Reading memoirs and biographies reminds me that no matter your circumstances or the state of the world, it is possible to accomplish great things. Sometimes, inspiration is only a page away.