Biography, life, memoir, autobiography, confessions are comparable when they mean a more or less detailed account of the events and circumstances of a person’s life.
Biography is the technical, neutral term for this kind of writing or for an example of it; the term suggests neither length nor brevity of treatment, neither factuality nor in- terpretation of facts, neither partisanship nor detachment, for it may be characterized by any of these qualities, but it does imply that the course of a career is covered at least in its main events.
Life usually suggests a fuller and more intimate treatment than biography; a work so designated may, however, be written on a brief scale or be drawn out so that very little is escaped.
Life is often used in place of biography when the author especially wishes to suggest a vivid or graphic or interpretive account or to imply the addition of firsthand material (as letters or ajournai); the term is also often used in the combination “life and times” as the title for a biography placing the subject in the background of his period.
Memoir (or often the plural memoirs) refers to a biography written by one who has intimate knowledge of its details; although it does not necessarily imply that the subject of the biography is the writer, it very frequently does so.
Also, memoir may suggest reminiscences of a whole or of part of a life; the term therefore carries no promise of completeness, or fullness, but it does connote a more personal approach than biography or, usually, than life.
Autobiography refers to a biography of oneself typically written toward the end of one’s life or at the completion of one’s active career. Autobiography usually implies some distinction in the writer and a demand for or the desire to give information about the personalities and events of his time or about the background of the events in which he has played a part. The term is seldom used in the titles of books and is preferred as a designation of a type.
Confessions as a type belong to the genre of autobiography. Confessions are usually written by a person who desires to avow fully the experiences of his life, both shameful and creditable. The motive of such a book is as varied as the books themselves; thus, to give extremes, the Confessions of St.
Augustine were written for the glorification of God, who has brought him out of a life of sin; the Confessions of Rousseau were written to reveal truly and sincerely all his experiences without reference to the opinions of men.