What’s the difference between an autobiography, a biography, and a memoir? This is a question that I have encountered many times in my work as a reference librarian at several public libraries. Patrons arrive at the library looking for information about a celebrity or a politician and are confronted with a selection of books that includes autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. To many people, these three words mean the same thing. Indeed, all are nonfiction stories about an individual’s life. So what is the difference? That's an excellent question.
Let's begin with biographies. Biographies are works written by someone other than the subject. The subject of the book may be living or dead, but the subject has been meticulously researched and studied by the author for years. Biographies fall into two types: 1.) Popular books about celebrities and politicians. 2.) Academic works about historical figures. Additionally, a biography may be authorized or unauthorized. While an unauthorized biography may contain new or controversial information, it may also contain errors since it was written without the subject’s permission or input.
Now let’s turn our attention to the words autobiography and memoir. The two terms are often used interchangeably. And that's okay in some cases. Both are written in first person; in other words, both are written by the subject of the book. However, there is a specific difference between an autobiography and a memoir in the timeline covered in the book. An autobiography covers the chronology of the author’s entire life from birth up to the writing of the book. In simple terms, think of an autobiography as a self-biography. While having a biographer write one's biography may give the work more of an academic tone, an autobiography may provide more insight into the subject’s life because the subject lived through it. On the other hand, a memoir focuses on one specific aspect or time period of the author’s life. For example, the four years the author spent in college may constitute a memoir. Additionally, memoirs may focus on a life-changing event such as overcoming depression or a stroke. Thus, a memoir may offer a more intimate look into a person’s life.
Each type of book offers a different perspective. So the next time you’re looking for information about Kirk Douglas, for example, you’ll be able to make an educated choice between The Ragman’s Son: An Autobiography by Kirk Douglas, Kirk Douglas by Michael Munn, and My Stroke of Luck by Kirk Douglas to get the perspective you want. Knowing the difference between the terms autobiography, biography, and memoir will help you find exactly the type of information you are looking for.