The Differences Between Memoir, Autobiography & Biography

We are over halfway through the year — let that fact sink in for a second. Now, where are you at with your reading goals? Regardless if your reading goals are just your own personal goals or you’re using an online checklist, like POPSUGAR’s Ultimate Reading Challenge or Book Riot’s Read Harder Reading Challenge, at least one memoir, autobiography or biography is likely on your TBR (to be read) list. Now, two questions you have to ask yourself:

  1. Have you fulfilled this goal?
  2. Are you certain the book qualifies under whichever genre you’re supposed to read?

Getting mixed up between memoirs, autobiographies and biographies is a common mistake because the three words are accidentally used interchangeably — but these three are not synonyms. This post will help you identify the differences and provide you bestselling examples of each so you can check-off reading that memoir/ autobiography/ biography (or combination thereof) off your TBR list.

Autobiography

An autobiography is a nonfiction story of a person’s life, written by that person (or a ghostwriter). In other words, the if the book says it’s by the same person the story is about then you’re reading an autobiography. An autobiography chronicles the life, from birth until death (or to the present day) and is normally written in first person.

Imaged above (from left to right):
[1] IN ORDER TO LIVE: A NORTH KOREAN GIRL’S JOURNEY TO FREEDOM BY YEONMI PARK
[2] BOSSYPANTS BY TINA FEY
[3] YES PLEASE BY AMY POEHLER
[4] IT’S A LONG STORY: MY LIFE BY WILLIE NELSON

Biography

A biography is a nonfiction story of a person’s life. To be considered biography, the biography must be as true as possible, based on factual evidence. Most biographies are written in third person and can generally be split into two types: popular nonfiction books about celebrities, politicians, and historical figures and academic works based on scholarly research.

Imaged above (from left to right):
[1] THE STORY OF MY EXPERIMENTS WITH TRUTH BY MAHATMA GANDHI
[2] STEVE JOBS BY WALTER ISAACSON
[3] BOWIE: THE BIOGRAPHY BY WENDY LEIGH
[4] THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS BY REBECCA SKLOOT

Memoir

A memoir, similar to an autobiography, is written by an author about their own life but instead of telling about the entire life of a person (or their life to present day), a memoir is more focused on discussing a particular topic (e.g. depression, drugs, life-changing events) and tell readers only about a certain period of time in the author’s life.

Memoirs are popular for celebrities and famous figures, but be aware of what you’re reading because you could be reading something that is written by a ghostwriter (a person whose job it is to write material for someone else who is the named author). Memoirs typically adopt a less formal style of writing to appeal to the mass market and can sometimes get creative with the formatting.

Memoirs, unlike academic biographies or autobiographies which are meticulously researched, come from the writer’s memory and often contain falsehoods. It is not uncommon for the writer to alter the truth to make for a better the story, this could be done by means of moving the order of events around, merging several people into one, or changing the scene of an event. If an author calls their book a memoir, not an autobiography, this is a subtle hint that not everything is 100% truthful. πŸ˜‰

Imaged above (from left to right):
[1] A MILLION LITTLE PIECES BY JAMES FREY
[2] NIGHT BY ELIE WIESEL
[3] WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC TRAIL BY CHERYL STRAYED
[4] THE GLASS CASTLE BY JEANNETTE WALLS

Did you find this quick guide helpful? Did you check off one of your goals as being done, when in reality you got mixed up between these three variations? I would like to hear about your reading goals or any other recommendations you have for each category! Please leave a comment. 

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