The Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project

Ruth of A Great Book Study has been making her way through the book, The Well-Educated Mind, a book that inspires and instructs readers on how to read and analyze novels, autobiographies, histories, plays and poetry.  At her invitation, I’ve decided to join her as she begins the biography section.

(the above image is used courtesy of Thomas Baker, Thomas Baker Oil Painting)

The biography section contains twenty-six autobiographies, listed in chronological order:

  1.  Augustine – The Confessions

  2.  Margery Kempe – The Book of Margery Kempe

  3.  Michel De Montaigne – Essays

  4.  Teresa of Àvila – The Life of Saint Teresa of Àvila by Herself 

  5.  René Descartes – Meditations

  6.  John Bunyan – Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners

  7.  Mary Rowlandson – The Narrative of the Captivity and

  8.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Confessions

  9.  Benjamin Franklin – The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

10.  Henry David Thoreau – Walden

11.  Harriet Jacobs – Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written 
                                    By Herself

12.  Frederick Douglass – Life and times of Frederick Douglass

13.  Booker T. Washington – Up from Slavery

14.  Friedrich Nietzsche – Ecce Homo

15.  Adolf Hitler – Mein Kampf

16.  Mohandas Gandhi – An Autobiography: The Story of My 
                                Experiments with Truth

17. Gertrude Stein – The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

18.  Thomas Merton – The Seven Storey Mountain

19.  C.S. Lewis – Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

20.  Malcolm X – The Autobiography of Malcolm X

21.  May Sarton – Journal of a Solitude

22.  Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn – The Gulag Archipelago

23.  Charles W. Colson – Born Again

24.  Richard Rodriguez – Hunger of Memory: The Education of 
                                       Richard Rodriguez

25.  Jill Ker Conway – The Road from Coorain

26.  Elie Wiesel – All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs

From the list I’ve already read, The Seven Storey Mountain, thanks to my Classics Club Spin, Augustine’s Confessions, and from my C.S. Lewis Project, I will have read Surprised by Joy, when we get to it.  As for what I’m looking forward to, probably Montaigne’s Essays, the Gulag Archipelago and Mein Kampf top the list, yet I must admit autobiographies are not a genre with which I’m widely familiar, so I’m a little hesitant as well.  Gertrude Stein and Malcolm X are perhaps the biographies I feel the most “meh” about, but with this list and my lack of exposure, I fully expect I will be pleasantly surprised with at least two books that I am less than enthusiastic about reading.  We’ll see when we complete the list.

Ruth has listed some questions on A Great Book Study that will help us as we read, and I am going to post them here for easy access:

During the first stage of reading (find out what happened):
What are the central events in the writer’s life?

What historical events coincide-or merge-with these personal events?

Who is the most important person (or people) in the writer’s life?

What events form the outline of the story?

In the second stage of reading:
What is the theme that ties the narrative together?

What is the life’s turning point?  Is there a conversation?

For what does the writer apologize?  In apologizing, how does the writer justify?

What is the model-the ideal-for this person’s life?

What is the end of the life: the place where the writer has arrived, found closure, discovered rest?

Now revisit your first question: What is the theme of this writer’s life?

In the final stage of reading:
Is the writer writing for himself, or for a group?

What are the three moments, or time frames, of the autobiography?

Where does the writer’s judgment lie?

Do you reach a different conclusion from the writer about the pattern of his life?

Do you agree with what the writer has done?

What have you brought away from this story?

I was a little surprised at the last question in the second stage of reading: “What is the theme of the writer’s life.”  I’ve always been familiar with books having themes, but not lives.  Has anyone ever asked themselves, “What is the theme of my life?”  A fascinating question.  I wonder if we viewed our lives as having themes, would we choose to live them differently or live them “better”?  I wonder ……

In any case, I’m excited to start this project and I anticipate it will inspire me on to deeper and more thoughtful reading.  Please join us for the project, or even a book or two, if you feel so inclined.  We begin June 1st.

9 thoughts on “The Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project

  1. I have to ask, "What is it that interests you most about Mein Kampf?"

    On my Pinterest Board, I posted all of the books from the autobiography list, and that was one that took me the longest to find b/c I did not want to post anything with Hitler's face. I just couldn't do it. So I found something else, but it did have a swastika on it, which I apprehensively used. Ugh!

    I'm not excited about Malcolm X either, but I'm open.

    As I looked over the list, there are a lot that sound really interesting. I'm excited.

    Glad you are joining me!!

  2. I'd like to try to get into his head to ….. well, I'm not sure if "understand" is the word, but perhaps, view the thought process that put him on the path of exterminating millions of people. How can someone hate a race of people so deeply that they can do what he did? Then you might ask, why do I want to know this? Well, I think, in all of us, we have the possibility of being a Hilter, or at least a Hilter-supporter. Not that we will, but, as C.S. Lewis says, our choices (and I think our circumstances too) take us closer to heaven or hell. What choices and circumstances made Hilter the person he was? Because, if we know (or get closer to understanding), it makes it easier to recognize and avoid the pitfalls, and perhaps help guide others, as well. Does that make sense?

    There are many biographies on the list which I'm hesitant to read but, look, I had been putting off reading The Seven Storey Mountain too, but when I read it, I loved it. In any case, I'm quite excited about the earlier ones so I'll be in a groove (hopefully) before we hit the more challenging (for me) ones.

    I'm glad you suggested it, Ruth, and to have some buddy support as well!

  3. My architect teacher used to tell us it was important to figure out and understand why people did what they did (even if you did not agree with them). It's similar to walking in someone else's shoes. But then that may border compassion, and it is difficult to imagine having compassion for Hitler. Instead, it is more like a study, an investigation as to why Hitler did what he did. I can look at it like that.

  4. I think it's really cool that you're doing this! I keep thinking that I might do the WEM list someday (but of course, right now I'm in the middle of my college education which is actually focused on classic literature, so it seems a little redundant). I'll be interested to see what you think of all these.

  5. I'm glad to jump in with the biography list. Her novel list had many book that I'd already read, but with this list, the ones I've read, I'm happy to read over again. I can't wait to get to the plays and poetry sections, and even the history will be interesting.

    Thanks for stopping by Emily, and it's great to see that you're back blogging again!

  6. I'm reading a bio and memoir on Edith Wharton at the moment – I'll keep these questions in mind now.
    The Malcolm X book was tough going. Mein Kampf is scarily fascinating though.

  7. Oh, I wish I could have joined your Edith Wharton read …… I just love her writing …… but I have too many books on the go at the moment. I know nothing about her life though, so I'll be interested in hearing your comments.

    You well-read person, you! 😉 I probably wouldn't have read either book without this project, so I'll be happy to expand my horizons. Yes, I do have a feeling that I'll have to force myself to read Malcolm X but the books on either side of it look interesting so, if it turns out to be torture, at least I won't have to be tortured for too long!

  8. This looks great! I'm interested in reading Mein Kampf as well – I've read extracts for university (did an essay on the religious elements of Nazism). I remember reading it (this is one of my weirder stories) on an island in the river where I lived, and I was joined by a fisherman. Got into an interesting discussion (once I made it very clear it was for a university project!).

  9. What an interesting story —– I laughed when I read about the island in the river —- for some reason I got visions of one of The Wind in the Willows characters as the fisherman. 😀 Was it fun to live on an island in a river? I get to live on an island in the ocean in the summer. Interesting things happen on small islands —– like having deer charge the side of your house, being dive-bombed by bats and preparing to escape forest fires. Surprisingly very few dull moments!

    I'll let you know when we begin reading Mein Kampf. I'd love to read your essay. I'm assuming that Hilter was proficient at using religion to further his own "religion" but, of course, I'm guessing, as I know very little about WWII. My goal for last year was to learn more about WWII, but I only managed to read a couple of books on it. Yes, me and my lists and goals …….. and now you are learning why I try to avoid making them …… 😉

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!