When reading a biography there are many things to consider and keep track of to be as sure as possible that you reap accurate information. A biography is a written account of a person’s life, but even with all the details and facts that the author gathers, possibly even speaking with the individual presented, it can only give a glimpse into that person’s life. Yet, that glimpse, even when read with the knowledge that not all the information is available, is both interesting and instructive. Not only does it give real life examples of what has or hasn’t worked out for people, it shows quotes and interactions among groups of people that help us to understand the reasoning behind their actions.
To understand a biography, it is helpful to keep in mind other things you have studied that might give you insight into the time, place, economy, political happenings, person, or anything else you are currently reading about. That way, it may be easier to spot when the author’s bias shows itself. Bias is unavoidable in every written document. However if the reader has enough background, it becomes easier to locate the bias, and compare with other books that cover the same subjects to find the main facts. It may also be beneficial to have a little knowledge of the time period when the book was written. Not only will the author’s bias be present, but likely some preferences and word usages general to the time when the author lived. In the event of those inevitable flaws, here is a list of things I found I needed to be aware of when reading:
- Bias of the author, specifically- world view, political views, opinion of the subject
- Bias of the biographee (yes, that is a word), specifically – world view, political views, opinions vs. actions
- Political happenings at the time of the biographee’s life and at the time of the author’s life
- What is/was widely considered correct at the time of the biographee’s and author’s lives
- Is vocabulary used differently in the book than currently?
- When was the book written, what common prejudices of the time might affect how it was written?
One should also note what the author’s opinion of the biographee is. Although quotes can be fairly easily manipulated to mean something other than the person speaking actually meant, they can also be an indicator of whether the other facts are being presented accurately. If the author has a propensity to draw the person as flawless, the quotes may help to dispel that notion. If the author presents the person in a poor light, which I have come across less often, the quotes may help to balance the author’s seeming dislike of his topic. The list continues:
- Think about how people are presented by the author, as compared to how they actually acted
- Be aware of the use of stereotypes and how they affect your opinion of the biographee and how they may affect the opinions of the author and biographee
- Notice when the author writes their opinion as fact, and evaluate (Assumptions about time periods, people, groups…)
Many of these items are similar, but are worth mentioning separately for full consideration and evaluation of the material in question. Finally, discussing with others what you are reading can result in even greater insight as they may have useful information regarding any number of items you are examining. And finally:
- Discuss what you’re reading with other people to get their insight into what may have been happening and how things are being presented.
This list was a result after my reading and evaluating a number of biographies. I’m sure there are more things that can be considered and studied for better understanding, but I anticipate that this list will provide a helpful beginning for anyone considering picking up a biography.