Written by Yumitra Kannan
The challenges of life, especially at the brink of adulthood, often tend to be tough and depressing. There’s so much to do and so little time. Doors that once seemed as open as a mother’s arms have suddenly sealed shut, and the ones that remain open beckon towards a path with fewer helping hands. It does seem like a lonely trek, doesn’t it?
Eventually, it becomes a necessity to administer your own antidotes to make life a little better. We’ve all got our happy pills – music, food, movies, sports, etc. For most of us, it’s a mixture of a few elements, and occasionally, we’re lucky enough to find just one simple solution to alleviating all our woes. I, for one, find my sanctuary within the pages of well-written non-fiction and if I’ve got human nature figured out to some extent, I reckon you can too. There’s nothing quite like sharing in another’s pain and triumph to give you more perspective and compassion. So, here’s my list of Top 5 Biographies and Memoirs that will may help you in your journey towards cherishing life with all of its perfect imperfections:
1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
First and foremost, it would serve us all to take a quick look at the synopsis of this 228-paged memoir:
“When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student in search of what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father”
This has to be one of my all time favourite books and one of the few that I’ve managed to read in 4 hours straight. Paul Kalanithi is a fantastic writer who managed to capture the entirety of his life in a concise manner within the limited time inoperable lung cancer had left him with. His narration is nothing short of a work of art. The way he captured his intricate life is almost like poetry, it’s a tone you can’t possibly get tired of. Rich with emotions, meaning, substance and the aspiration to be more, the story takes you on a journey of one man’s battle with the identity of life and how his deepest curiosities about living are only quenched by his own encounter with looming death. The story reminds you to cherish time and the beauty of living.
There will come a point when questions have to end and living has to begin, even if it is only when you’re near your deathbed.
“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
– Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
2. Educated by Tara Westover
Raw. That is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of Educated. The story is narrated by the protagonist – Tara, whose journey in the book begins from her younger days all the way up to the point where she breaks the shackles of her origin and blossoms into who she truly wants to be. This rich, dense and naked memoir, written in a story telling manner that is so easy to consume, makes the reader lose touch with reality as they try to keep up with hers. It’s scary, dramatic, extreme, empowering, frustrating, beautiful and everything in between. A life like that deserves to be written like this and how Tara Westover has given her own journey such a powerful voice is the definition of excellence. It’s a must read universal pick. Among the few memoirs that I’ve read, all of them gripping realities of lives so distant and different from mine, this particular one really made me reflect on my own life, identity, journey and existence. It has triggered my anger, made my jaw drop at the silent sufferings of injustice, sexism and cruelty under the name of God that these characters had to go through. It has made me question : if I am not the person sculpted by all those around me, what am I? What’s left of me if not parts and pieces influenced by the powerful entities in my life? It is a brilliant account of the battle between family and self.
“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”
― Tara Westover, Educated
3. Becoming by Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama’s autobiography is one of those dense, rich and full of substance kind of books that does not belong in the light reading category. In fact, the story requires you to sit after every few chapters to mull over the thought-provoking content before moving on to the next round – much like the sophisticated art of drinking wine.
Michelle Obama’s life is opulent with hard-hitting experiences and a beautiful narration of all the little pieces of the puzzle of life that makes her the brilliant woman that she is. The book gives readers an insight into how she has continuously pulled through the roughest patches in life and still emerge gracefully. There’s so much more to the face we often saw next to the previous President of The United States of America. Michelle was a girl, then a woman and a mother and a fiery spirit and she has always fought for what she deserves. In the book, she also demystifies the life and struggles of her successful family, almost giving a step-by-step breakdown of all the elements that built the life she has today. To summarise, Michelle takes the readers on a journey of honesty and passion.
“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.”
― Michelle Obama, Becoming
4. The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind by Barbara K.Lipska
This medical memoir about a neuroscientist whose melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) spread to her brain, sheds light into what happens to the mind when the brain is attacked. Scary, mind-blowing, inspiring and surreal, this ironical yet miraculous journey whereby a woman whose job is to work with brains loses her own, is a story worth absorbing.
It is truly an insightful read. Though quite factual, the beautiful thing about this story was how the author went through so much and survived it all! From surviving breast cancer and having the cancer spread to her brains, to pulling through with unmatchable strength ⎼⎼ you will be left in awe. A tale of madness and recovery, as she calls it, was captured in a way that enables the ones on the sidelines to understand a bit of what it is like to lose your mind. To hear it from an expert in the field is just another bonus!
The grit and will of this woman in her later years will make you question your own perseverance and sometimes, that questioning is exactly what you need to redefine life.
“We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.”
― Barbara K. Lipska, The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery
5. How To Be A Bawse by Lilly Singh
My last pick for the Top 5 memoirs and biographies is an autobiography by the famous Canadian-Indian YouTuber: Lilly Singh. How To Be A Bawse is quite a masterpiece for the its design and structure. Well rounded, humorous and well written, this book is more of a read-one-chapter-a-day kind of pick that very subtly weaves life lessons and experiences into something that can be easily consumed, digested and practiced. Bringing the unfiltered truth about hustling for dreams to the table, Lilly paints a realistic picture for the youngsters of today ⎼⎼ who, for the most part, share similar dreams ⎼⎼ about the struggles and beauty of life in today’s world. I’d say that if people were to not stop themselves from picking up the book just because they aren’t a fan, they’d get the opportunity to read a piece of work which has evidently been produced with a lot of effort. It is full to the brim with insightful, meaningful and passionate conversations that Lilly Singh has with herself and her audience. Being a bawse requires you to earn it and what it costs is what Lilly has captured in a perfectly curated manner for us readers.
“Working hard feels good. Of course it’s exhausting and stressful and causes you to miss a party or two, but at the end of the day it is so rewarding. One of the best feelings in the world is when you know that luck didn’t play a role in your success. Doing work eliminates the need for luck. I’m not lucky, I just took the stairs. And you should too.”
― Lilly Singh, How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life
It’s a known fact that biographies and memoirs aren’t popular among young people. In fact, I would equate this genre to extremely bitter coffee, something that requires time to get used to, let alone enjoy. But I assure you that when you venture into this underrated genre with a book that best suits your expectations and needs, there’s no coming back! Because real stories give you hope and inspiration like no other and there’s always a story out there just like yours. But on the off chance that there aren’t any, I suppose you’ll just have to write one yourself.