In this blog arc, we’re exploring why nonfiction best-seller lists nearly always include, and are sometimes dominated by, biographies and autobiographies, and also why most of them focus on famous people. What’s left to learn about a very famous person whose life unfolds daily in newspapers and magazines? Take Abraham Lincoln for example. In the past 150 years, hasn’t everything about him, and particularly his assassination, already been written? Yet today we still seem to be quite taken with our 16th president, as evidenced by Bill O’Reilley’s best-seller Killing Lincoln and the two 2012 movies Lincoln and Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (okay, perhaps that one is fiction). Other names on the best-seller list—Winston Churchill, Joseph Kennedy, Bruce Springsteen—what are we still hoping to learn about them we don’t already know?
Secrets! We’d like to know the “real” story behind some action or development, or we’re hoping to hear a confession about how someone felt about someone else, or we want to know a little tidbit never before revealed. Certainly someone writing a memoir will share with us some deep, dark secret; exposing a love affair is a popular choice.
Sometimes it’s just about the point of view. No matter how much has been written about a fascinating person, when a different author tackles the familiar material there’s bound to be a nugget of something new in the biography. And when the book is a memoir, we can be sure we’ve never before heard the story from that point of view.