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Biographies… Reading for Character

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

I do not read very many biographies. I read none in my youth, and only began to entertain reading them when I was about 30. Now, though I do not elect to sample many, they are one of my favorite genres when the person in question is the right person. I have two good reasons today why you should consider them too. Both reasons have to do with reading for character.


1) Noun. The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

2) Noun. A person in a novel, play, or movie.

Who do you want to be? Who do you want a character you are creating to be? How interestingly similar are these two questions?

Build Character

Biographies have a special way of showing us, with a blend of storytelling and reality, about who the people we look up to are. Some books are flattering, some are not, but they all should give us insights into the trials they faced, what actions they took, perhaps insights into why they took those actions, and the outcomes.

I don’t personally like autobiographies. We all want too badly to paint ourselves in certain lights, and the world we inhabit is filled with enough daily autobiographical information from the internet and blogs and influencers. I prefer the considered external opinion of people by strangers.

Einstein. More than a genius.

Einstein is a classic example of a person we might read about. He was a genius yes, but not so stand out as to be incomprehensible. There were many peers that existed around him, all of them as special. He was not even quite as unique in physics as some might consider. It’s called the Lorentz contraction after all, not the Einstein contraction. He needed vast help from Murry Gellman to work out the mathematics of general relativity. I’ve read extensively on Einstein, and I am a physicist by training, so I have some opinions here.

But what do we take away from this?

Do you want to learn what it takes to be a great scientist? Do you want to craft yourself, build your own world into something that will help bring you from where you are to being a great scientist? The knowledge of a life lived in such a pursuit might help you get there. Do you want to create a scientific character replete with complexities, flaws, hobbies and depth? Reading about a real person will do that for you too.

Biographies free us to see people for who they were, including their problems. It lets us look past the assumptions and simple statements about who they are to the complexity that lies beneath. Einstein for example loved women, enjoyed late nights, long walks, (for real,) and got things wrong in physics too. He was in fact excellent at school, contrary to popular memes, though he struggled with his PH.D advisor. We can learn about his stances on religion, science, people and we can see that our heroes and heroines are mortal, with foibles.

When we write characters, we tend to forget the complexities. That can include the character we write for ourselves as we go through life. We want to be… a writer, scientist, artist, parent, gardener, farmer, run a business… whatever it might be. We draft that character with our actions. We can and should be willing to sacrifice a great deal to the goals we have, but we are still human. So were the greatest who ever lived in their fields. The people we read biographies about.

Go read a biography. Embrace their humanity. Embrace yours. Then strive for greatness anyway.

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Anna Varlese
Anna Varlese
Nov 14, 2023
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.

Interesting idea. To read more, what are your favorite well-written biographies that help us see the "character" behind the actions?

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