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Biography (from the Greek words bios meaning life, and graphein meaning write) is a genre of literature and other forms of media like film, based on the written accounts of individual lives. While a biography may focus on a subject of fiction or non-fiction, the term is usually in reference to non-fiction. As opposed to a profile or curriculum vitae, a biography develops complex insight and highlights different textures of personality including intimate details of experiences. A biography is more than a list of facts like birth, education, work, relationships and death. It also delves into the emotions of experiencing such events.
The first known biographies were written by scribes commissioned by the various rulers of antiquity: ancient Assyria, ancient Babylonia, ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, among others. Such biographies tended to be chiseled into stone or clay tablets, a method called cuneiform. The Jewish holy scripture is an anthology of some of the earliest biographies in existence, detailing the lives of chiefs, kings, tribes, patriarchs and prophets.
Ancient Greece developed biographies that tended not to be objective. Rather, these biographies were defenses of controversial people of the era they were living. The best known of the classical biographies include Memorabilia by Xenophon, Parallel Lives by Plutarch and Lives of Caesars by Suetonius. During the reign of the Roman Empire, the Gospels attributed to John, Luke, Mark and Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible were biographies about Jesus.
The Early Middle Ages (AD 400 to 1450) saw a decline in awareness of classical culture. During this time, the only repositories of knowledge and records of early history was the Roman Catholic Church. Hermits, monks and priests used this historic period to write the first modern biographies. Their subjects were usually restricted to church fathers, martyrs, popes and saints. Their works were meant to be inspirational to people, vehicles for conversion to Christianity. See hagiography. One significant example of biography from this period which does not exactly fit into that mold is the life of Charlemagne as written by his courtier Einhard.
By the late Middle Ages, biographies became less church-oriented as biographies of kings, knights and tyrants began to appear. The most famous of these such biographies was Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. The book was an account of the life of the fabled King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Following Malory, the new emphasis on humanism during the Renaissance promoted a focus on secular subjects such as artists and poets, and encouraged writing in the vernacular. Two other developments are noteworthy: the development of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the gradual increase in literacy.
In 1640, Izaak Walton published Life of Donne, a biography about the poet John Donne. The book was the first to take on the complex style of biographical writing used today. In 1683, the first English language biography appeared in history with the publication of a biography of Plutarch by John Dryden. Interestingly enough, Dryden's work delved in great detail about Plutarch's popularization of the word biography.
An influential and widely read biography of the 18th century was Boswell's Life of Johnson (first edition, 1791). Filled with seemingly verbatim accounts of the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson's conversations as well as many of his letters, it presented its subject to the reader with an intimacy and detail rarely seen before that time or since.
By the late 20th century, biographies were more focused on the lives of celebrities and politicians. These works typically drew on correspondence, diaries, first-hand interviews, journals, and other sources directly related to the subject. As the development of word processors and personal computers made it easier for authors to assemble vast manuscripts, biographies of a thousand pages or more became commonplace. In reaction, some publishers began putting out much shorter – and less expensive – "brief lives" of famous people.
With the technological advancements created in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, multi-media forms of biography became much more popular than literary forms. Visual and film images were able to elaborate new dimensions of personality that written forms could not. The popularity of these forms of biography culminated in the creation of such cable and satellite television networks as: A&E, The Biography Channel, The History Channel and History International.
Annually, several countries offer their writers a specific prize for writing a biography such as the:
- Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize – Canada
- Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography – United States
- Whitbread Prize for Best Biography – United Kingdom
- List of biographers
- Lists of people
- Family history
- Historical document
- Dictionary of National Biography (DNB, notable figures from British history)
- NNDB (Notable Names Database)
- Most Honored Biography at the Book Award Annals
- Biographies and Memoirs
- Writing Biography & Autobiography
- Biography of Celebritiesan:Biografía
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