Top 5: Joe Queenan

Author Joe Queenan on his favorite autobiographies

Tarrytown resident Joe Queenan is the author of nine books; his most recent is the memoir Closing Times. Here, he shares the titles of five other autobiographies he finds particularly compelling.

1. Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski (Vintage)
“Readers who have been consuming far too much fiction by self-involved lightweights from Park Slope should take a crack at a real writer’s work,” says Queenan—like this Polish journalist’s account of traveling the most dangerous places in the world for almost 50 years and never without packing his copy of Herodotus’ The Histories. “This book shows that there is nothing new under the sun, and that dictators and mass murderers are far less interesting than long-dead Greek historians.”

2. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Bertrand Russell. (Atlantic Monthly Press)
“Very funny and very incisive” is how Queenan describes this book covering the life of the brilliant mathematician and philosopher from 1872 until 1914. “I can think of no living philosopher or mathematician who is both witty and incisive. In fact, I can think of none who are either.” The book showed him “that genius can express itself in short, unadorned sentences—a lesson that blustery, pedantic writers like William F. Buckley and William Styron never seemed to learn.”

3. Kinski Uncut: The Autobiography of Klaus Kinski, Klaus Kinski (Viking)
The author calls Kinski Uncut the most honest, salacious book about the motion picture industry ever written. “It’s basically about a man who only makes movies because it leaves him with a lot of free time to have sex with women he hardly knows,” he says. The title is noteworthy “because it was the first time I had ever read a book by an actor who was not a moron, and thus held out hope that a second, similar book might lie out there somewhere. Thus far,” he adds, “this has not proven to be the case.”

4. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein (Modern Library)
Queenan describes this autobiography written by Gertrude Stein about her companion Alice B. Toklas—he says it’s actually about Stein and not Toklas—as simple, straightforward, and beautiful. “The action takes place between 1907 and 1932,” he says, “and you cannot read it without thinking of Picasso, Braque, Apollinaire, and The Sun Also Rises.”

5. Exposing Myself, Geraldo Rivera (Bantam)
Calling this autobiography “vile even by Geraldo’s own notoriously repulsive standards,” Queenan suggests that Rivera “has inadvertently served up an exquisite indictment of everything that is wrong with TV journalism—namely, him.” Queenan recalls wondering why Kurt Vonnegut always looked really sad whenever he saw him out on the street. “Then I found out that Vonnegut was Geraldo Rivera’s father-in-law,” he says. “That’d do it.”