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A man's memory is bound to be a distortion of his past in accordance with his present interests, and the most faithful autobiography is likely to mirror less what a man was than what he has become.
Fawn M. Brodie

An autobiography (from the Greek, αὐτός-autos self + βίος-bios life + γράφειν-graphein to write) is a book about the life of a person, self-authored by that person.


  • All fiction may be autobiography, but all autobiography is of course fiction.
    • Shirley Abbott, quoted in Mickey Pearlman, Listen to Their Voices (1993), ch. 12.
  • What apter practitioners of autobiography than historians? Trained to examine the past with an impartial eye, alert to oddities of context and artifices of narrative, they would appear to be the ideal candidates for the difficult task of the self-description of a life. Yet strangely it is not they, but philosophers who have excelled at the genre – indeed all but invented it. In principle, autobiography is the most intimately particular of all forms of writing, philosophy the most abstract and impersonal. They should be oil and water. But it was Augustine and Rousseau who gave us the sexual and personal confession and Descartes who offered the first ‘history of my mind’: in modern times Mill and Nietzsche, Collingwood and Russell, Sartre and Quine, all left records of themselves more memorable than anything else written about them. The number of historians who have produced autobiographies of any distinction, on the other hand, is remarkably small. In the nineteenth century, the self-serving memoirs of Guizot and Tocqueville, rarely consulted today, are of interest mainly as testimonials of political evasion. Closer to hand, Marc Bloch’s post-mortem on 1940, with its mixture of personal report and general requisitory, is a poignant document, but too circumscribed for more than flashes of self-revelation. More recently, we have the eccentric cameos of Richard Cobb and causeries of A.J.P. Taylor, of which he said they were evidence that he had run out of historical subjects. In all, in the genre for which it seems so well designed, the craft of the historian has yielded perhaps only two classics – Gibbon’s graceful mirror at the end of the eighteenth century, and Henry Adams’s baroque Wunderkammerat the beginning of the twentieth.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), Ch. 13 : The Vanquished Left: Eric Hobsbawm
  • Every autobiography is concerned with two characters, a Don Quixote, the Ego, and a Sancho Panza, the Self.
    • W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand (1962), pt. 3, "Hic et Ille", sect. b
  • Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. [...] For even if months and years appear here, it is in the form they have in the moment of recollection. This strange form—it may be called fleeting or eternal—is in neither case the stuff that life is made of.
    • Walter Benjamin, A Berlin Chronicle (1932–, unfinished), in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – vol. 2, pt. 2: 1931-1934, ed. Michael William Jennings, Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 612.
  • A man's memory is bound to be a distortion of his past in accordance with his present interests, and the most faithful autobiography is likely to mirror less what a man was than what he has become.
  • Autobiographies tell more lies than all but the most self-indulgent fiction.
    • A. S. Byatt, Sugar and Other Stories (1987), "On the Day That E. M. Forster Died".
  • An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last installment missing.
  • I don't think anybody should write his autobiography until after he's dead.
    • Samuel Goldwyn, quoted in Arthur Marx, Goldwyn: The Man Behind the Myth (1976), prologue.
  • An autobiography is only 'a sort of life' – it may contain less errors of fact than a biography, but it is of necessity even more selective: it begins later and it ends prematurely.
  • Autobiography is now as common as adultery and hardly less reprehensible.
  • Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.
    • George Orwell, "Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali" (1944), in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 3, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 1968.
  • I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn't.
  • A dog cannot relate his autobiography; however eloquently he may bark, he cannot tell you that his parents were honest but poor.
    • Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: It's Scope and Limits (1948), pt. 2, ch. 1.
  • Autobiographies ought to begin with Chapter Two.
  • Don't give your opinions about Art and the Purpose of Life. They are of little interest and, anyway, you can't express them. Don't analyse yourself. Give the relevant facts and let your readers make their own judgments. Stick to your story. It is not the most important subject in history but it is one about which you are uniquely qualified to speak.
  • Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography.
  • I have always hated biography, and more especially, autobiography. If biography, the writer invariably finds it necessary to plaster the subject with praises, flattery, and adulation and to invest him with all the Christian graces. If autobiography, the same plan is followed, but the writer apologizes for it.
  • When I read the book, the biography famous,
    And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
    And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
    (As if any man really knew aught of my life,
    Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
    Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
    I seek for my own use to trace out here.)
  • I dislike modern memoirs. They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering, which, however, is, no doubt, the true explanation of their popularity, as the English public always feels perfectly at its ease when a mediocrity is talking to it.

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