The best biographies do one thing: Bring their subjects to life. And in doing so, these biographies tell a story, weaving a narrative the way a novel does instead of just listing major life events. Biographies are often written about some of the greatest figures from throughout history, including modern times. Reading these life stories allows the reader to spend time getting to know some of the thinkers, artists, explorers, and revolutionaries that helped shape the world. These history books provide an insight into their worldviews, the events that shaped them, and their methods for overcoming whatever obstacles stood between them and their life goals.
Below is a list of 21 exceptional biographies. Some were chosen because of the subject matter and others were selected because of the biographer (three of the selections are written by the same author). It’s often said that the best way to increase your knowledge is by reading biographies. We suggest you start with these.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro
The former parks commissioner of New York, Robert Moses was a man who got power, loved power, and was transformed by power. This 1,000-plus page biography could be the definitive study of power and legacy. It’s a great learning tool of mostly what not to be and who not to become.
Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Totto-Chan is a special figure in modern Japanese culture and is on the same celebrity status level as Oprah is to us here in the United States. The book describes the childhood in pre-WWII Japan of a misunderstood girl who suffered from attention disorders and excessive energy and who later was mentored by a very special school principal who truly understood her. The book has sold over 5 million copies in Japan.
Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith
The man who was responsible for winning World War II, twice preventing the use of nuclear weapons, and attempting to keep our soldiers out of Vietnam, all while making it look easy, is none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower. This biography is a history lesson as well as an opportunity to get inside the mind of a brilliant man.
Edison: A Biography by Matthew Josephson
This particular biography dates back more than 50 years, which means it was written without the worry of being politically correct or controversial, but instead focused on providing a conclusive picture of the man. Modern enough to be historically accurate, this biography details a lot of the little-known facts about Mr. Edison in addition to his accomplishments, as well as failures.
Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office by Zach O’Malley Greenburg
Empire State of Mind is both an unofficial biography of the rap mogul Jay-Z as well as a business book. It shows how the rapper hustled his way to the top of the music industry to become one of the most powerful and influential people in music.
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer
The story of the professional football player who gave up a $3 million NFL contract to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, only to die under suspicious circumstances in the hills of Afghanistan, is a book about everything that is right and wrong with the United States military. Pat Tillman wasn’t perfect, but he was a man we could all learn something from. His incredible story is one of bravery and selflessness, and will forever be tied to the aftermath of 9/11.
Titan: The Life of John. D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow is one of the greatest biographers of our time. In this 800-page biography of John. D. Rockefeller, he shares the main lessons you would take away from someone like Rockefeller, a strangely stoic, incredibly resilient, and — despite his reputation as a robber baron — humble and compassionate man. Most successful people get worse as they age but Rockefeller instead became more open-minded and more generous. The biography also details his wrongdoings and permits you the opportunity to make your own judgment on Rockefeller’s character.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Another example of Chernow’s brilliance in biographical writing is given in his biography of George Washington. Today, we study Washington not only for his against-the-odds military victory over a superior British Army but also for his strategic vision, which is partially responsible for many of the most enduring American institutions and practices. It’s another long read of the type Chernow is famous for, but it’s also a page-turner; although it’s intimidating to look at, the read will go quick.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Our modern-day genius, Steve Jobs, will forever be remembered as the mastermind that brought us Apple. This biography shows Jobs at his best, which includes illustrations of his determination and creativity but also details the worst of him, including his tyrannical and vicious ways of running a business (and his family). From this book, you will learn to appreciate the man for the genius that he was, but will most likely not inspire you to follow in his path of how he ran a company.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
Most depictions show the Mongols as bloodthirsty pillagers, but in this biography, we are also shown how they introduced many progressive advances to their conquered nations. You will learn how Khan abolished torture, permitted universal religious freedom, and destroyed existing feudal systems.
Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time by Joseph Frank
This five-volume retelling of the life and times of Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky is considered the best biography available on the subject. The mammoth exploration sheds light on Dostoevsky’s works, ideology, and historical context. For those who are not specifically interested in the famous author, the also book paints a picture of 19th-century Russia.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvelous Works of Nature and Man by Martin Kemp
Kemp’s account of da Vinci’s life and work is considered the go-to biography of the famous Renaissance figure. This incredible book sheds light on one of the most creative figures that ever lived, guiding readers through a fully integrated account of his scientific, artistic, and technological works, as well as the life events that helped form the man that made them.
Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by Leslie-Ann Jones
After the massive success of the movie recently released about music legend Freddie Mercury and Queen, you might be interested in learning more about the frontman. This biography draws from hundreds of interviews with key figures in his life to create a revealing glimpse into Mercury’s life.
Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes by Donald Barlett
This is an epic biography of an epic man. It shows the heights of his incredible success as well as the depths of his inner struggles. Readers learn about the tough but eccentric figure in a story that details his incredible success as an aviator, film producer, and more.
Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
The brilliant mathematician, cytologist, and computer pioneer Alan Turing is beautifully depicted in this biography. It covers his heroic code-breaking efforts during the war, his computer designs and contributions to mathematical biology in the years following, and the vicious persecution that befell him in the 1950s when homosexual acts were still a crime and punishable by law.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Of course, we couldn’t highlight Ron Chernow’s best works without including his biography on Alexander Hamilton, which is not only the inspiration for a hit Broadway musical but also a work of creative genius itself. Another over 800-page book (an ongoing theme for Chernow biographies), this book details every knowable moment of the youngest Founding Father’s life, from his role in the Revolutionary War and early American government to his sordid affair with Maria Reynolds. If you’ve seen the musical, this book will help answer a lot of those burning questions that you may have.
Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
The focal point of this biography is not the suffering that was endured by Frida Kahlo, but instead, her artistic brilliance and her immense resolve to leave her mark on the world. Herrera’s 1983 biography of one of the most recognizable names in modern art has since become the definitive account of her life.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Recommended reading for any adventurer or explorer — the story of Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, who hitchhiked to Alaska and disappeared in to the Denali wilderness in April 1992 only to have his remains discovered in his shelter five months later — Into the Wild retraces his steps along the trek, attempting to discover what the young man was looking for on his journey.
Prince: A Private View by Afshin Shahidi
Compiled after the superstar’s untimely death in 2016, this intimate snapshot into the life of Prince is largely visual. The author served as the musician’s private photographer from the early 2000s until his passing. You already know the expression, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and in this case, they are worth a lot more.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
The “Kennedy Curse” didn’t bring forth an assassination or a mysterious plane crash for Rosemary Kennedy, although her fate might have been the worst of them all. As if her botched lobotomy that left her almost completely incapacitated weren’t enough, her parents then hid her away from society, almost never to be seen again. Penned by Kennedy scholar Kate Larson, the full truth of her post-lobotomy life is finally revealed.
Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher
Love him or hate him, President Trump is likely to have the legacy of being the most divisive U.S. president of modern times. The comprehensive biography of Donald Trump is reported by a team of award-winning Washington Post journalists and co-authored by investigative political reporter Michael Kranish and senior editor Marc Fisher. The book gives the reader an insight into the 45th president, from his upbringing in Queens to his turbulent careers in real estate and entertainment to his astonishing rise as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang
Most are familiar with the revolutionary Mao Zedong. This carefully curated biography by Jung Chang digs deeper into the life of the “Red Emperor.” You won’t find these interviews and stories about the world leader in history books alone. This extensive account of Mao Zedong begins with a horrific statistic: Mao was responsible for the deaths of over 70 million people during his regime.
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