The 30 Best Biographies of All Time

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The 30 best biographies of all time.

The 30 Best Biographies of All Time

Biographer Richard Holmes once wrote that his work was “a kind of pursuit… writing about the pursuit of that fleeting figure, in such a way as to bring them alive in the present.”

At the risk of sounding cliché, the best biographies do exactly this: bring their subjects to life. A great biography isn’t just a laundry list of events that happened to someone. Rather, it should weave a narrative and tell a story in almost the same way a novel does. In this way, biography differs from the rest of nonfiction .

All the biographies on this list are just as captivating as excellent novels , if not more so. With that, please enjoy the 30 best biographies of all time — some historical, some recent, but all remarkable, life-giving tributes to their subjects.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the number of great biographies out there, you can also take our 30-second quiz below to narrow it down quickly and get a personalized biography recommendation  😉

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1. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

This biography of esteemed mathematician John Nash was both a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and the basis for the award-winning film of the same name. Nasar thoroughly explores Nash’s prestigious career, from his beginnings at MIT to his work at the RAND Corporation — as well the internal battle he waged against schizophrenia, a disorder that nearly derailed his life.

2. Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film The Imitation Game - Updated Edition by Andrew Hodges

Hodges’ 1983 biography of Alan Turing sheds light on the inner workings of this brilliant mathematician, cryptologist, and computer pioneer. Indeed, despite the title ( a nod to his work during WWII ), a great deal of the “enigmatic” Turing is laid out in this book. It covers his heroic code-breaking efforts during the war, his computer designs and contributions to mathematical biology in the years following, and of course, the vicious persecution that befell him in the 1950s — when homosexual acts were still a crime punishable by English law.

3. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is not only the inspiration for a hit Broadway musical, but also a work of creative genius itself. This massive undertaking of over 800 pages 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 (and ultimately career-destroying) affair with Maria Reynolds. He may never have been president, but he was a fascinating and unique figure in American history — plus it’s fun to get the truth behind the songs.

Prefer to read about fascinating First Ladies rather than almost-presidents? Check out this awesome list of books about First Ladies over on The Archive.

4. Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston

A prolific essayist, short story writer, and novelist, Hurston turned her hand to biographical writing in 1927 with this incredible work, kept under lock and key until it was published 2018. It’s based on Hurston’s interviews with the last remaining survivor of the Middle Passage slave trade, a man named Cudjo Lewis. Rendered in searing detail and Lewis’ highly affecting African-American vernacular, this biography of the “last black cargo” will transport you back in time to an era that, chillingly, is not nearly as far away from us as it feels.

5. Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert

Though many a biography of him has been attempted, Gilbert’s is the final authority on Winston Churchill — considered by many to be Britain’s greatest prime minister ever. A dexterous balance of in-depth research and intimately drawn details makes this biography a perfect tribute to the mercurial man who led Britain through World War II.

Just what those circumstances are occupies much of Bodanis's book, which pays homage to Einstein and, just as important, to predecessors such as Maxwell, Faraday, and Lavoisier, who are not as well known as Einstein today. Balancing writerly energy and scholarly weight, Bodanis offers a primer in modern physics and cosmology, explaining that the universe today is an expression of mass that will, in some vastly distant future, one day slide back to the energy side of the equation, replacing the \'dominion of matter\' with \'a great stillness\'--a vision that is at once lovely and profoundly frightening.

Without sliding into easy psychobiography, Bodanis explores other circumstances as well; namely, Einstein's background and character, which combined with a sterling intelligence to afford him an idiosyncratic view of the way things work--a view that would change the world. --Gregory McNamee

6. E=mc²: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis

This “biography of the world’s most famous equation” is a one-of-a-kind take on the genre: rather than being the story of Einstein, it really does follow the history of the equation itself. From the origins and development of its individual elements (energy, mass, and light) to their ramifications in the twentieth century, Bodanis turns what could be an extremely dry subject into engaging fare for readers of all stripes.

7. Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

When Enrique was only five years old, his mother left Honduras for the United States, promising a quick return. Eleven years later, Enrique finally decided to take matters into his own hands in order to see her again: he would traverse Central and South America via railway, risking his life atop the “train of death” and at the hands of the immigration authorities, to reunite with his mother. This tale of Enrique’s perilous journey is not for the faint of heart, but it is an account of incredible devotion and sharp commentary on the pain of separation among immigrant families.

8. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera

Herrera’s 1983 biography of renowned painter Frida Kahlo, one of the most recognizable names in modern art, has since become the definitive account on her life. And while Kahlo no doubt endured a great deal of suffering (a horrific accident when she was eighteen, a husband who had constant affairs), the focal point of the book is not her pain. Instead, it’s her artistic brilliance and immense resolve to leave her mark on the world — a mark that will not soon be forgotten, in part thanks to Herrera’s dedicated work.

9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Perhaps the most impressive biographical feat of the twenty-first century, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about a woman whose cells completely changed the trajectory of modern medicine. Rebecca Skloot skillfully commemorates the previously unknown life of a poor black woman whose cancer cells were taken, without her knowledge, for medical testing — and without whom we wouldn’t have many of the critical cures we depend upon today.

10. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, hitchhiked to Alaska and disappeared into the Denali wilderness in April 1992. Five months later, McCandless was found emaciated and deceased in his shelter — but of what cause? Krakauer’s biography of McCandless retraces his steps back to the beginning of the trek, attempting to suss out what the young man was looking for on his journey, and whether he fully understood what dangers lay before him.

11. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families by James Agee

"Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.” From this line derives the central issue of Agee and Evans’ work: who truly deserves our praise and recognition? According to this 1941 biography, it’s the barely-surviving sharecropper families who were severely impacted by the American “Dust Bowl” — hundreds of people entrenched in poverty, whose humanity Evans and Agee desperately implore their audience to see in their book.

12. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Another mysterious explorer takes center stage in this gripping 2009 biography. Grann tells the story of Percy Fawcett, the archaeologist who vanished in the Amazon along with his son in 1925, supposedly in search of an ancient lost city. Parallel to this narrative, Grann describes his own travels in the Amazon 80 years later: discovering firsthand what threats Fawcett may have encountered, and coming to realize what the “Lost City of Z” really was.

13. Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang

Though many of us will be familiar with the name Mao Zedong, this prodigious biography sheds unprecedented light upon the power-hungry “Red Emperor.” Chang and Halliday begin with the shocking statistic that Mao was responsible for 70 million deaths during peacetime — more than any other twentieth-century world leader. From there, they unravel Mao’s complex ideologies, motivations, and missions, breaking down his long-propagated “hero” persona and thrusting forth a new, grislier image of one of China’s biggest revolutionaries.

14. Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson by Andrew Wilson

Titled after one of her most evocative poems, this shimmering bio of Sylvia Plath takes an unusual approach. Instead of focusing on her years of depression and tempestuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes, it chronicles her life before she ever came to Cambridge. Wilson closely examines her early family and relationships, feelings and experiences, with information taken from her meticulous diaries — setting a strong precedent for other Plath biographers to follow.

15. The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes

What if you had twenty-four different people living inside you, and you never knew which one was going to come out? Such was the life of Billy Milligan, the subject of this haunting biography by the author of Flowers for Algernon . Keyes recounts, in a refreshingly straightforward style, the events of Billy’s life and how his psyche came to be “split”... as well as how, with Keyes’ help, he attempted to put the fragments of himself back together.

16. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

This gorgeously constructed biography follows Paul Farmer, a doctor who’s worked for decades to eradicate infectious diseases around the globe, particularly in underprivileged areas. Though Farmer’s humanitarian accomplishments are extraordinary in and of themselves, the true charm of this book comes from Kidder’s personal relationship with him — and the sense of fulfillment the reader sustains from reading about someone genuinely heroic, written by someone else who truly understands and admires what they do.

17. Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

Here’s another bio that will reshape your views of a famed historical tyrant, though this time in a surprisingly favorable light. Decorated scholar Andrew Roberts delves into the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, from his near-flawless military instincts to his complex and confusing relationship with his wife. But Roberts’ attitude toward his subject is what really makes this work shine: rather than ridiculing him ( as it would undoubtedly be easy to do ), he approaches the “petty tyrant” with a healthy amount of deference.

18. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson IV by Robert A. Caro

Lyndon Johnson might not seem as intriguing or scandalous as figures like Kennedy, Nixon, or W. Bush. But in this expertly woven biography, Robert Caro lays out the long, winding road of his political career, and it’s full of twists you wouldn’t expect. Johnson himself was a surprisingly cunning figure, gradually maneuvering his way closer and closer to power. Finally, in 1963, he got his greatest wish — but at what cost? Fans of Adam McKay’s Vice , this is the book for you.

19. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

Anyone who grew up reading Little House on the Prairie will surely be fascinated by this tell-all biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Caroline Fraser draws upon never-before-published historical resources to create a lush study of the author’s life — not in the gently narrated manner of the Little House series, but in raw and startling truths about her upbringing, marriage, and volatile relationship with her daughter (and alleged ghostwriter) Rose Wilder Lane.

20. Prince: A Private View by Afshin Shahidi

Compiled just after the superstar’s untimely death in 2016, this intimate snapshot of Prince’s life is actually a largely visual work — Shahidi served as his private photographer from the early 2000s until his passing. And whatever they say about pictures being worth a thousand words, Shahidi’s are worth more still: Prince’s incredible vibrance, contagious excitement, and altogether singular personality come through in every shot.

21. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

Could there be a more fitting title for a book about the husband-wife team who discovered radioactivity? What you may not know is that these nuclear pioneers also had a fascinating personal history. Marie Sklodowska met Pierre Curie when she came to work in his lab in 1891, and just a few years later they were married. Their passion for each other bled into their passion for their work, and vice-versa — and in almost no time at all, they were on their way to their first of their Nobel Prizes.

22. Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

She may not have been assassinated or killed in a mysterious plane crash, but Rosemary Kennedy’s fate is in many ways the worst of “the Kennedy Curse.” As if a 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. Yet in this new biography, penned by devoted Kennedy scholar Kate Larson, the full truth of Rosemary’s post-lobotomy life is at last revealed.

23. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

This appropriately lyrical biography of brilliant Jazz Age poet and renowned feminist, Edna St. Vincent Millay, is indeed a perfect balance of savage and beautiful. While Millay’s poetic work was delicate and subtle, the woman herself was feisty and unpredictable, harboring unusual and occasionally destructive habits that Milford fervently explores.

24. Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes

Holmes’ famous philosophy of “biography as pursuit” is thoroughly proven here in his first full-length biographical work. Shelley: The Pursuit details an almost feverish tracking of Percy Shelley as a dark and cutting figure in the Romantic period — reforming many previous historical conceptions about him through Holmes’ compelling and resolute writing.

25. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

Another Gothic figure has been made newly known through this work, detailing the life of prolific horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson. Author Ruth Franklin digs deep into the existence of the reclusive and mysterious Jackson, drawing penetrating comparisons between the true events of her life and the dark nature of her fiction.

26. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

Fans of Into the Wild and The Lost City of Z will find their next adventure fix in this 2017 book about Christopher Knight, a man who lived by himself in the Maine woods for almost thirty years. The tale of this so-called “last true hermit” will captivate readers who have always fantasized about escaping society, with vivid descriptions of Knight’s rural setup, his carefully calculated moves and how he managed to survive the deadly cold of the Maine winters.

27. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The man, the myth, the legend: Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, is properly immortalized in Isaacson’s masterful biography. It divulges the details of Jobs’ little-known childhood and tracks his fateful path from garage engineer to leader of one of the largest tech companies in the world — not to mention his formative role in other legendary companies like Pixar, and indeed within the Silicon Valley ecosystem as a whole.

28. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Olympic runner Louis Zamperini was just twenty-six when his US Army bomber crashed and burned in the Pacific, leaving him and two other men afloat on a raft for forty-seven days — only to be captured by the Japanese Navy and tortured as a POW for the next two and a half years. In this gripping biography, Laura Hillenbrand tracks Zamperini’s story from beginning to end… including how he embraced Christian evangelism as a means of recovery, and even came to forgive his tormentors in his later years.

29. Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) by Stacy Schiff

Everyone knows of Vladimir Nabokov — but what about his wife, Vera, whom he called “the best-humored woman I have ever known”? According to Schiff, she was a genius in her own right, supporting Vladimir not only as his partner, but also as his all-around editor and translator. And she kept up that trademark humor throughout it all, inspiring her husband’s work and injecting some of her own creative flair into it along the way.

30. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

William Shakespeare is a notoriously slippery historical figure — no one really knows when he was born, what he looked like, or how many plays he wrote. But that didn’t stop Stephen Greenblatt, who in 2004 turned out this magnificently detailed biography of the Bard: a series of imaginative reenactments of his writing process, and insights on how the social and political ideals of the time would have influenced him. Indeed, no one exists in a vacuum, not even Shakespeare — hence the conscious depiction of him in this book as a “will in the world,” rather than an isolated writer shut up in his own musty study.

If you're looking for more inspiring nonfiction, check out this list of 30 engaging self-help books , or this list of the last century's best memoirs !

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30 Best Biography Books You Should Have Read by Now

Jennifer Brozak

From your favorite figures to hidden stories you've never heard, this list of biographies will keep you glued to the page.

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Bibliography Collage

An in-depth look into some fascinating figures

The best biographies help us learn about and contemplate the world. By reading about pivotal figures in history, we better understand the cultural context that we live in today. In learning the life stories of people who have faced different challenges and circumstances than we have, we can gain a deeper understanding of others, develop more empathy, and help forge our own paths. And while autobiographies and memoirs can lend an air of intimacy, biography books give you a more unbiased view of a person and an era.

Whether you’re an avid reader of biographies looking for lesser-known titles or are new to the genre and want an introduction to the best of the best, we’ve got something for you. We took a cross section of critically acclaimed and reader-recommended books that shine a light on some of the most fascinating, hidden, or influential stories you’ll want to learn about. These picks rank not just among the best nonfiction books but also the best books of all time, and you’re definitely in for a treat.

1. Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude (2020)

1. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude (2020)

In these tumultuous times, average citizens and leaders alike have been turning to the words of James Baldwin, one of the greatest writers on race in America . In this recent biography of Baldwin, author Eddie S. Glaude weaves Baldwin’s life and words from newly surfaced interviews with the state of racial tension in America today. In doing so, he shines Baldwin’s insight from the past onto current events and lights a path toward a better future. Begin Again was named one of the best books of the year by Time , the Washington Post , and the Chicago Tribune , and it won the prestigious Stowe Prize.

2. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts (1982)

2. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts (1982)

You may have seen the 2008 film Milk starring Sean Penn, but this biography goes deeper into Harvey Milk’s personal life and career, and wider in applying Milk’s story as a parallel for so much of what was happening to the gay community across the United States at the time. As one of the first openly gay public officials, Milk was a target, and his life was tragically taken before we could see the full potential of his charismatic leadership. Written in 1982 by San Francisco reporter Randy Shilts, there are aspects of this account that are now dated, but it vividly captures the outlook and political complexity of San Francisco in the 1970s. While you’re looking for new reading material, check out these other LGBTQ books that are inspiring, compelling, and entertaining.

3. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography by Miriam Pawel (2014)

3. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography by Miriam Pawel (2014)

A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the California Book Award, this can easily be considered one of the best biographies of all time. It’s the first ​​comprehensive biography of Cesar Chavez, one of the most influential Latinx figures in American history. Chavez’s remarkable life, mind, and journey from migrant worker to movement leader is written poignantly and with nuance by Miriam Pawel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

4. Alice Walker: A Life by Evelyn C. White (2004)

4. Alice Walker: A Life by Evelyn C. White (2004)

Alice Walker has given us some of the most celebrated and beloved books, including The Color Purple , which made her the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. In this comprehensive biography, Evelyn C. White conducts extensive research and numerous interviews and draws connections between Walker’s early life events, societal ills, and the brilliant writer that Walker would become. Whether you’ve read Walker’s work already or not, this is a biography you won’t want to miss. Here are more of the best books by female authors .

5. In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs by Stephen M. Ward (2016)

5. In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs by Stephen M. Ward (2016)

In this dual biography, Stephen M. Ward (professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan) skillfully crafts the rarely told story of James and Grace Lee Boggs. A true power couple, these intellectual and revolutionary minds were instrumental in the struggle for Black freedom. Hailing from different backgrounds, they moved along parallel paths until they converged in Detroit. Ward’s deep knowledge of the city shines through as well, making this a fascinating read for anyone interested in U.S. history, activism, labor movements, or love stories. Don’t miss these other books by Black authors across all genres.

6. The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller (2001)

6. The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller (2001)

The three Brontë sisters have been the subject of many biographies and much gossip. In this examination, author Lucasta Miller illustrates how the evolving views of the Brontës say more about the times in which these biographies were written than they do about the famous siblings themselves. Through research, Miller dispels myths and poses new theories, drawing readers in with her funny and frank style.

7. Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero by David Maraniss (2006)

7. Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Maraniss (2006)

Yes, this is a book for sports fans, but it’s also for anyone who admires trailblazers and humanitarians. With narrative pacing that will sweep away any reader, Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss shows us why Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente meant so much to so many. Born in Puerto Rico, he broke barriers in baseball and felt a responsibility to help wherever he could. He died while trying to bring aid to Nicaragua, ending a bright light of a life far too soon. While this could work well for young baseball fans, depending on their age, you’ll also want to peruse this list of nonfiction books for kids .

8. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics by Jeremy Schaap (2007)

8. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap (2007)

Another biography for sports fans and world-history lovers, this in-depth account of Jesse Owens’ inspiring victories is an illuminating page-turner. Sports journalist and ESPN contributor Jeremy Schaap brings us to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with vivid prose. We see what Owens was up against both at home and abroad, and how his wins reverberated across the world. Owens’ gold medals were both a personal triumph and a triumph against Nazi ideology. This is a fascinating read, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with Jesse Owens.

9. Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama by Diane Carol Fujino (2005)

9. Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama by Diane Carol Fujino (2005)

The public first became widely aware of Yuri Kochiyama when Malcolm X was assassinated. She was the woman who was by his side and cradled his head as he left this world. Activist, professor, and author Diane Carol Fujino weaves archival research and interviews to show who Kochiyama was before and after this moment, and how her early experiences led to a life dedicated to activism and solidarity-building between Black and Asian American communities . From the internment of Japanese Americans to the Black movement in Harlem and beyond, this first biography of Kochiyama uncovers important and rarely discussed moments in U.S. history.

10. Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948 by Ramachandra Guha (2018)

10. Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948 by Ramachandra Guha (2018)

Though everyone has heard of Gandhi and may even have some of his quotes framed, few know the story of his life. This biography takes us from his departure from South Africa to his assassination, the years of his remarkable life that changed the world the most dramatically. Author Ramachandra Guha is an acclaimed historian, and this serves not only as the story of a revolutionary but also as a lesson in India’s complex social structures.

11. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (2015)

11. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (2015)

If you’ve seen Hamilton , you probably remember the Marquis de Lafayette as the fun-loving young pal of Alexander Hamilton. In this original biography, best-selling author Sarah Vowell makes General Lafayette’s story just as entertaining as his portrayal in the musical. The Frenchman’s fast-paced, international life and his time in Washington’s army take center stage, which enables us to meet a cast of famous characters through his eyes, including Thomas Jefferson, Marie Antoinette, and Benjamin Franklin. If you don’t mind a little creative license, try these historical fiction books you won’t be able to put down.

12. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (2012)

12. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (2012)

Hands down one of the best biographies, The Black Count won the Pulitzer in 2013. Famed novelist Alexandre Dumas (known for The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers ) drew inspiration from the life of his father, Alex Dumas. What wasn’t included in his stories was that his father was the son of a slave—a Black man in a White world. Born in 1762 in Saint-Domingue, the young Alex moved to France, where he rose in the ranks to become a highly regarded general. His story is arguably more fascinating than his son’s fiction.

13. Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur of Time by Stephen Teo (2005)

13. Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur of Time by Stephen Teo (2005)

With the popularity of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings , audiences took notice of star Tony Leung. Those in the know recognize Leung from his early work, most notably films like Days of Being Wild , Chungking Express , In the Mood for Love , and 2046 , all directed by the iconic Wong Kar-Wai. In this first book-length biography of the legendary director, readers get a behind-the-scenes look at Hong Kong cinema, as well as insight into Kar-Wai’s influences and how he redefined the film industry.

14. Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

14. Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

If you can’t get enough of The Crown on Netflix, this biography will be your cup of tea. This is author Sally Bedell Smith’s third biography of a member of the royal family, and her expertise in making connections and presenting research shines. Smith takes us into the meeting rooms, social activities, and international tours that fill Queen Elizabeth II’s life . We see the effects of being constantly in the public eye and get to know a seemingly untouchable person on a human level, reminding us that she was once just a young girl who took on a monumental responsibility.

15. A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee's Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming (2017)

15. A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming (2017)

Some biographies interest us because we are fans of their famous subjects. Other biographies grip us because they show us untold stories we could only otherwise imagine. This biography of Doaa Al Zamel, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, makes vivid a crisis that often feels too overwhelming to comprehend. Her story is one of too many like it, and her humanity makes it impossible to look away. If you haven’t read this book yet, start a book club and spread the word. This is a story that needs to be heard.

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster by Stephen L. Carter (2018)

16. Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster by Stephen L. Carter (2018)

Another biography written about a little-known but immensely impactful person, this book is written with an insider’s view and nuanced objectivity. You may not have heard of Eunice Hunton Carter, but after reading this biography written by her grandson, you won’t be able to forget her. The granddaughter of slaves and one of the first women to graduate Smith College with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in just four years, Carter was the only prosecutor sharp enough to bring down Lucky Luciano, a dangerous Mafia boss.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (2015)

17. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (2015)

This is not your typical biography. It’s peppered with quotes, illustrations, anecdotes, and pop culture references. In fact, it might remind you of something you’d scroll through on the Internet. That’s because co-author Knizhnik created the wildly popular Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr. Co-author Carmon interviewed Justice Ginsburg for MSNBC (and sat down with her to fact-check this book), so you can be sure you’re getting well-researched facts as well as entertainment in this bestseller. A perfect read for anyone who misses RBG, may she rest in peace and power. You’ll also love these Ruth Bader Ginsburg quotes on women, equality, and justice. And soon, you’ll be able to catch RBG on a new 2023 stamp .

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd (2003)

18. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd (2003)

Writer Zora Neale Hurston’s colorful life and personality make for excellent reading. Hurston was a prolific author who created boundary-pushing work in just about every genre, and her biography also touches upon important figures and events. With friendships that included Langston Hughes, rivals that included Richard Wright, and a life span that included the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the civil rights movement, Hurston’s life was as full and complex as her novels.

The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)

19. The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)

This book remains the gold standard for modern biographies. Johnson, a poet, essayist, biographer, and lexicographer, is best known for publishing A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755—widely considered one of the best dictionaries ever published. Although not much is known about Johnson’s early life, this biography showcases the rise of Johnson’s tremendous career and details his ability to overcome adversity, including his struggles with anxiety, hearing loss, partial blindness, and behavioral tics, which were diagnosed posthumously as Tourette’s syndrome. If poems pique your interest, pick up a few of the best poetry books of all time, too.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)

20. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)

This biography by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin profiles the life of America’s 16th president, as well as four members of his cabinet who served with him from 1861 to 1865. Critics consider this book, which won the 2006 Lincoln Prize, to be one of the most insightful and readable portraits of Lincoln because it focuses on personalities, not politics—namely, how Lincoln managed to build relationships with some of his former rivals.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2001)

21. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2001)

Written by award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot, this book tells the tragic story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Black tobacco farmer and mother of five who died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951, at age 31. Before she died, researchers took her tumor cells without her knowledge or her family’s permission. Those cells—which now number in the billions and are known as HeLa cells—became one of the most crucial tools in the field of medicine. Skloot expertly weaves a discussion of race and ethics into this tale of scientific discovery.

John Adams by David McCullough (2002)

22. John Adams by David McCullough (2002)

It’s easy to see why critics love this Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of our second president. Written by American historian and esteemed author David McCullough, John Adams is a soaring, powerful read. It takes the reader on an in-depth journey of Adams’ early life and through his presidency and marriage to Abigail. While it focuses on politics, it’s also a love story and a study of human nature and loyalty. It was so well received that it spawned the critically acclaimed HBO series of the same name. Here are more book-to-movie adaptations that are worth a watch.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

23. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

Reading this article on a smartphone? You likely have Steve Jobs to thank for that. Written by notable biographer Walter Isaacson, this book provides readers with a never-before-seen, unrestricted, and unfiltered glimpse into the Apple founder’s life. Isaacson based the book on more than 40 interviews that he held with Jobs over a period of several years while Jobs was terminally ill, as well as hundreds of interviews he conducted with Jobs’ family members, friends, and colleagues. Jobs was and still is widely considered one of the world’s greatest innovators, and this book presents a concise yet intricate look at the man behind the myth.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (2001)

24. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (2001)

Not so much a singular biography as a collection of biographies, this book profiles the hardships that three sharecropper families faced during the Great Depression. Along with photographer Walker Evans’ stark images, the book details the suffering endured by the three poverty-stricken families as they struggle to survive the Dust Bowl’s harsh conditions. Although it was a commercial flop at the time, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is now widely considered to be a pillar of exemplary journalism.

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman (2010)

25. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman (2010)

Another collection of biographies, this book is the follow-up to Gender Outlaw , Kate Bornstein’s groundbreaking and genre-breaking memoir about her transformation from man to woman. In this sequel, Bornstein and co-author S. Bear Bergman turn our attention to the next generation of artists, creatives, and professionals across the trans spectrum. Through essays, conversations, and art, we get to see some of the beautiful diversity in the trans community. To learn more about gender identity, find out exactly what non-binary means —and why it’s important to understand.

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nelly Bly by Deborah Noyes (2017)

26. Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nelly Bly by Deborah Noyes (2017)

In 1887, Pittsburgh-based reporter Nelly Bly feigned insanity at a boarding house so that she would be involuntarily committed to a 10-day stay at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and could report on the horrific conditions present at the clinic. Bly’s exposé, aptly titled Ten Days in a Mad-House , was the obvious catalyst for this book by Deborah Noyes, which also delves into Bly’s entire reporting career, up to the time of her death. While the book is marketed as middle school nonfiction and it’s one of the best books for teens and tweens, its focus on sexism in the workplace, mental health, and gender norms make it a must-read for adults, too.

Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert (1991)

27. Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert (1991)

This biography details the life and career of one of the world’s greatest leaders: Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, who served as the British Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 and then again between 1951 and 1955. This book highlights aspects of Churchill’s life that are seldom discussed: his childhood and upbringing as a wealthy aristocrat; his early career in the army and government; his advocacy of the Labor Party; and, of course, his leadership during World War II, where he led his country to victory against Nazi Germany.

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (2007)

28. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (2007)

Yes, Albert Einstein was a genius, and plenty has already been written about the physicist’s Nobel Prize-winning scientific discoveries. Where this book differs, however, is in its examination of the aspects of Einstein’s life that made him human and relatable. Because of Einstein’s “sassy attitude,” for example, he was unable to find a job after graduating from Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, where he studied physics. One of the best biographies on Einstein, the book discusses how Einstein’s insolent personality served as the impetus for his groundbreaking discoveries and also explores his often rocky relationships with his wives, other women, his children, and his colleagues.

Eleanor Roosevelt: The Early Years by Blanche Wieson Cook (1992)

29. Eleanor Roosevelt: The Early Years by Blanche Wieson Cook (1992)

The first of a three-volume set by noted history professor Blanche Wieson Cook, this biography looks at the woman who was often referred to as the greatest First Lady the United States has ever had. In this volume, Cook explores the early parts of Roosevelt’s life, including her birth into a wealthy family that was torn apart by alcoholism; an unhappy childhood that stemmed from the early death of her parents; her education at a private finishing school; and her marriage to FDR.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2020)

30. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2020)

Are you a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton ? If so, this biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow is a must-read. The book—jokingly referred to as “Hamiltome” because of its hefty size—chronicles the life of this Founding Father. It starts with Hamilton’s humble beginnings as an orphan, then winds its way through his service as a staunch patriot in George Washington’s army. It also showcases Hamilton’s meteoric rise to become the first Treasury Secretary of the United States before ending with his death, which came at the hands of a duel with Aaron Burr. Next, switch gears and check out some of the best fiction books to read this year.

Tria Wen

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The 50 Best Biographies of All Time

Think you know the full and complete story about George Washington, Steve Jobs, or Joan of Arc? Think again.

best biography in the world

Biographies have always been controversial. On his deathbed, the novelist Henry James told his nephew that his “sole wish” was to “frustrate as utterly as possible the postmortem exploiter” by destroying his personal letters and journals. And one of our greatest living writers, Hermione Lee, once compared biographies to autopsies that add “a new terror to death”—the potential muddying of someone’s legacy when their life is held up to the scrutiny of investigation.

Why do we read so many books about the lives and deaths of strangers, as told by second-hand and third-hand sources? Is it merely our love for gossip, or are we trying to understand ourselves through the triumphs and failures of others?

To keep this list from blossoming into hundreds of titles, we only included books currently in print and translated into English. We also limited it to one book per author, and one book per subject. In ranked order, here are the best biographies of all time.

Crown The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss

You’re probably familiar with The Count of Monte Cristo , the 1844 revenge novel by Alexandre Dumas. But did you know it was based on the life of Dumas’s father, the mixed-race General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, son of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave? Thanks to Reiss’s masterful pacing and plotting, this rip-roaring biography of Thomas-Alexandre reads more like an adventure novel than a work of nonfiction. The Black Count won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2013, and it’s only a matter of time before a filmmaker turns it into a big-screen blockbuster.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown

Few biographies are as genuinely fun to read as this barnburner from the irreverent English critic Craig Brown. Princess Margaret may have been everyone’s favorite character from Netflix’s The Crown , but Brown’s eye for ostentatious details and revelatory insights will help you see why everyone in the 1950s—from Pablo Picasso and Gore Vidal to Peter Sellers and Andy Warhol—was obsessed with her. When book critic Parul Sehgal says that she “ripped through the book with the avidity of Margaret attacking her morning vodka and orange juice,” you know you’re in for a treat.

Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, by Alec Nevala-Lee

If you want to feel optimistic about the future again, look no further than this brilliant biography of Buckminster Fuller, the “modern Leonardo da Vinci” of the 1960s and 1970s who came up with the idea of a “Spaceship Earth” and inspired Silicon Valley’s belief that technology could be a global force for good (while earning plenty of critics who found his ideas impractical). Alec Nevala-Lee’s writing is as serene and precise as one of Fuller’s geodesic domes, and his research into never-before-seen documents makes this a genuinely groundbreaking book full of surprises.

Free Press Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D.G. Kelley

The late American jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk has been so heavily mythologized that it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. But Robin D. G. Kelley’s biography is an essential book for jazz fans looking to understand the man behind the myths. Monk’s family provided Kelley with full access to their archives, resulting in chapter after chapter of fascinating details, from his birth in small-town North Carolina to his death across the Hudson from Manhattan.

University of Chicago Press Frank Lloyd Wright: A Biography, by Meryle Secrest

There are dozens of books about America’s most celebrated architect, but Secrest’s 1998 biography is still the most fun to read. For one, she doesn’t shy away from the fact that Wright could be an absolute monster, even to his own friends and family. Secondly, her research into more than 100,000 letters, as well as interviews with nearly every surviving person who knew Wright, makes this book a one-of-a-kind look at how Wright’s personal life influenced his architecture.

Ralph Ellison: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad

Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel, Invisible Man , is about a Black man who faced systemic racism in the Deep South during his youth, then migrated to New York, only to find oppression of a slightly different kind. What makes Arnold Rampersand’s honest and insightful biography of Ellison so compelling is how he connects the dots between Invisible Man and Ellison’s own journey from small-town Oklahoma to New York’s literary scene during the Harlem Renaissance.

Oscar Wilde: A Life, by Matthew Sturgis

Now remembered for his 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde was one of the most fascinating men of the fin-de-siècle thanks to his poems, plays, and some of the earliest reported “celebrity trials.” Sturgis’s scintillating biography is the most encyclopedic chronicle of Wilde’s life to date, thanks to new research into his personal notebooks and a full transcript of his libel trial.

Beacon Press A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks, by Angela Jackson

The poet Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1950, but because she spent most of her life in Chicago instead of New York, she hasn’t been studied or celebrated as often as her peers in the Harlem Renaissance. Luckily, Angela Jackson’s biography is full of new details about Brooks’s personal life, and how it influenced her poetry across five decades.

Atria Books Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, by Dana Stevens

Was Buster Keaton the most influential filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century? Dana Stevens makes a compelling case in this dazzling mix of biography, essays, and cultural history. Much like Keaton’s filmography, Stevens playfully jumps from genre to genre in an endlessly entertaining way, while illuminating how Keaton’s influence on film and television continues to this day.

Algonquin Books Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation, by Dean Jobb

Dean Jobb is a master of narrative nonfiction on par with Erik Larsen, author of The Devil in the White City . Jobb’s biography of Leo Koretz, the Bernie Madoff of the Jazz Age, is among the few great biographies that read like a thriller. Set in Chicago during the 1880s through the 1920s, it’s also filled with sumptuous period details, from lakeside mansions to streets choked with Model Ts.

Vintage Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee

Hermione Lee’s biographies of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton could easily have made this list. But her book about a less famous person—Penelope Fitzgerald, the English novelist who wrote The Bookshop, The Blue Flower , and The Beginning of Spring —might be her best yet. At just over 500 pages, it’s considerably shorter than those other biographies, partially because Fitzgerald’s life wasn’t nearly as well documented. But Lee’s conciseness is exactly what makes this book a more enjoyable read, along with the thrilling feeling that she’s uncovering a new story literary historians haven’t already explored.

Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark

Many biographers have written about Sylvia Plath, often drawing parallels between her poetry and her death by suicide at the age of thirty. But in this startling book, Plath isn’t wholly defined by her tragedy, and Heather Clark’s craftsmanship as a writer makes it a joy to read. It’s also the most comprehensive account of Plath’s final year yet put to paper, with new information that will change the way you think of her life, poetry, and death.

Pontius Pilate, by Ann Wroe

Compared to most biography subjects, there isn’t much surviving documentation about the life of Pontius Pilate, the Judaean governor who ordered the execution of the historical Jesus in the first century AD. But Ann Wroe leans into all that uncertainty in her groundbreaking book, making for a fascinating mix of research and informed speculation that often feels like reading a really good historical novel.

Brand: History Book Club Bolívar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana

In the early nineteenth century, Simón Bolívar led six modern countries—Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela—to independence from the Spanish Empire. In this rousing work of biography and geopolitical history, Marie Arana deftly chronicles his epic life with propulsive prose, including a killer first sentence: “They heard him before they saw him: the sound of hooves striking the earth, steady as a heartbeat, urgent as a revolution.”

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, by Yunte Huang

Ever read a biography of a fictional character? In the 1930s and 1940s, Charlie Chan came to popularity as a Chinese American police detective in Earl Derr Biggers’s mystery novels and their big-screen adaptations. In writing this book, Yunte Huang became something of a detective himself to track down the real-life inspiration for the character, a Hawaiian cop named Chang Apana born shortly after the Civil War. The result is an astute blend between biography and cultural criticism as Huang analyzes how Chan served as a crucial counterpoint to stereotypical Chinese villains in early Hollywood.

Random House Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford

Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most fascinating women of the twentieth century—an openly bisexual poet, playwright, and feminist icon who helped make Greenwich Village a cultural bohemia in the 1920s. With a knack for torrid details and creative insights, Nancy Milford successfully captures what made Millay so irresistible—right down to her voice, “an instrument of seduction” that captivated men and women alike.

Simon & Schuster Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Few people have the luxury of choosing their own biographers, but that’s exactly what the late co-founder of Apple did when he tapped Walter Isaacson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Adapted for the big screen by Aaron Sorkin in 2015, Steve Jobs is full of plot twists and suspense thanks to a mind-blowing amount of research on the part of Isaacson, who interviewed Jobs more than forty times and spoke with just about everyone who’d ever come into contact with him.

Brand: Random House Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), by Stacy Schiff

The Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov once said, “Without my wife, I wouldn’t have written a single novel.” And while Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra could also easily make this list, her telling of Véra Nabokova’s life in Russia, Europe, and the United States is revolutionary for finally bringing Véra out of her husband’s shadow. It’s also one of the most romantic biographies you’ll ever read, with some truly unforgettable images, like Vera’s habit of carrying a handgun to protect Vladimir on butterfly-hunting excursions.

Greenblatt, Stephen Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt

We know what you’re thinking. Who needs another book about Shakespeare?! But Greenblatt’s masterful biography is like traveling back in time to see firsthand how a small-town Englishman became the greatest writer of all time. Like Wroe’s biography of Pontius Pilate, there’s plenty of speculation here, as there are very few surviving records of Shakespeare’s daily life, but Greenblatt’s best trick is the way he pulls details from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets to construct a compelling narrative.

Crown Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

When Kiese Laymon calls a book a “literary miracle,” you pay attention. James Baldwin’s legacy has enjoyed something of a revival over the last few years thanks to films like I Am Not Your Negro and If Beale Street Could Talk , as well as books like Glaude’s new biography. It’s genuinely a bit of a miracle how he manages to combine the story of Baldwin’s life with interpretations of Baldwin’s work—as well as Glaude’s own story of discovering, resisting, and rediscovering Baldwin’s books throughout his life.

Headshot of Adam Morgan

Adam Morgan is a literary critic and the founder of the Chicago Review of Books , Southern Review of Books , and Chicago Literary Archive . 

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The 30 Best Biographies Ever Written

David Duran

A biography’s job is simple: It is to bring a person to life through evocative prose. Biographies (including autobiographies and memoirs) paint a portrait, weaving a complicated tapestry about the stories of certain lives throughout history. Further, reading these life stories allow us to get to know some of the greatest thinkers, artists, explorers, and revolutionaries at a deeper level.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro

Totto-chan: the little girl at the window by tetsuko kuroyanagi, eisenhower in war and peace by jean edward smith, edison: a biography by matthew josephson, empire state of mind: how jay-z went from street corner to corner office by zach o’malley greenburg, where men win glory: the odyssey of pat tillman by jon krakauer, titan: the life of john. d. rockefeller sr. by ron chernow, washington: a life by ron chernow, steve jobs by walter isaacson, genghis khan and the making of the modern world by jack weatherford, dostoevsky: a writer in his time by joseph frank, leonardo da vinci: the marvelous works of nature and man by martin kemp, mercury: an intimate biography of freddie mercury by leslie-ann jones, empire: the life, legend, and madness of howard hughes by donald barlett, alan turing: the enigma by andrew hodges, alexander hamilton by ron chernow, frida: the biography of frida kahlo by hayden herrera, into the wild by jon krakauer, prince: a private view by afshin shahidi, rosemary: the hidden kennedy daughter by kate clifford larson, trump revealed: the definitive biography of the 45th president by michael kranish and marc fisher, mao: the unknown story by jung chang.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Leonardo da vinci by walter isaacson, shoe dog by phil knight, the autobiography of malcolm x as told to alex haley, born a crime by trevor noah, the misadventures of awkward black girl by issa rae, robin by dave itzkoff.

Below, we gathered a comprehensive list of the best biographies ever written. Some of these biographies were selected because of the subject matter and others were chosen because of the biographer. It’s often said that reading biographies is the best way to gain new knowledge, so we suggest you start with these great selections. If you love history, you’ll certainly want to include these best history books to your home library.

Related Guides

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 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-World War II 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 more than 5 million copies in Japan.

The man who was responsible for winning World War II, twice prevented the use of nuclear weapons, and attempted 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.

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 his failures.

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.

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 U.S. 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 the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Ron Chernow has written some of the best biographies of our time. In this 832-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.

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 reading time goes by quickly.

Walter Isaacson has written some of the greatest biographies in contemporary literature. Our modern-day genius, Steve Jobs, will forever be remembered as the mastermind who 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 it will most likely not inspire you to follow in his path.

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 Genghis Khan abolished torture, permitted universal religious freedom, and destroyed existing feudal systems.

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.

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 who 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.

After the massive success of the movie recently released about rock legend Freddie Mercury and his band, 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.

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.

The brilliant mathematician, cytologist, and computer pioneer Alan Turing is beautifully depicted in this biography. It covers his heroic code-breaking efforts during World War II, 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.

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 more than 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.

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.

Recommended reading for any adventurer or explorer — the story of Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, who hitchhiked to Alaska and disappeared into 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. Krakauer delivers one of the best biography books in recent memory.

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.

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.

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is likely the most divisive U.S. president of modern times. The comprehensive biography of 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 Trump, 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.

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 the man known simply as Mao begins with a horrific statistic: He was responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million people during his regime.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell  

Biographies often give us the stories of people we know and love, but they can also reveal new stories about people that may have been lost to history. In her bestseller, Sonia Purnell tells the story of Virginia Hall, a prolific and heroic spy from World War II who took down the Axis Powers on one leg. 

Read more: Best Books By Female Authors

A standard biography is usually given by a historian after years and years of research and writing, but sometimes it’s better to go straight to the source. In his memoir, Richard Wright details his life as he recalls it as a black American in the 20th century. Black Boy is a harsh, painful, beautiful, and revealing read about race in the United States — and about a towering figure of literature. 

Isaacson represents the gold standard for contemporary biographers, and his tome on Leonardo da Vinci was a bestseller for a reason. Isaacson is able to show a detailed, intimate portrait of the most famous painter of all time from centuries away. 

Want to know how the biggest sports company of all time came to be? Hear it from the man himself. Phil Knight’s book takes you through how his little sneaker company in Oregon became the worldwide leader in sportswear. 

One of the most famous biographies ever, The Autobiography of Malcolm X remains a classic and an important read. Malcolm X’s politics, though controversial at the time and today, is a valuable and provocative perspective that will make you reconsider how you think about America and the American Dream. 

Long before becoming Jon Stewart’s successor on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah lived many, many lifetimes. Born to apartheid South Africa, Noah’s story is one of perseverance and triumph, and one that he manages to make funny by some sort of magic trick. 

Of course, today, you know Issa Rae as the writer, actor, and star of HBO’s Insecure, but before her hit show came her webseries and book of the same name, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Rae’s memoir wrestles with the idea of being an introvert in a world that considers Black people inherently cool. 

One of the most beloved comedians and actors of all time, Robin Williams’ passing in 2014 shook fans across generations. In his book, New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff covers the life, work, and emotions of one of the most complicated and misunderstood comedians ever. Oh captain, my captain…

Editors' Recommendations

Is there a bookworm in your life? They always seem to be carrying around a book everywhere they go and they're buying more books than they can read. Nothing is more exciting for a book lover than a new book that they've been dying to read, but if you’re unsure of what their favorite genres are, it might be tricky to shop the perfect book for them.

We recommend giving them something they can use for their holiday reading time, like books accessories to organize their collection or help them get comfortable as they lie down to read. To give you ideas, this list of the best gifts for booklovers covers everything readers love when it comes to reading, from bookmarks to book subscriptions.

Many of us welcome fall with pumpkin décor or a warm cup of pumpkin spice. But for horror enthusiasts or spooky specialists, reading a cornucopia of accursed fall reads is their way of greeting the season. Horror has probably existed since the beginning of the written word and covers themes ranging from the introspectively personal to the existentially absurd: It’s not just cheap thrills, ghosts, and demons! But sorting out the truly creepy from the quotidian is quite a gargantuan feat.

Because we want you to experience true horror, we’ve narrowed down the past 200 years of scary stories to a concise list of the best classic horror books for fall 2021. Beware, this list isn’t for the faint of heart. Maybe you’ll start hearing ominous sounds coming from the basement or under your bed. Or seeing a grotesque silhouette at the window. Who knows? After reading these books, we dare you to watch the best classic horror movies for the ultimate scare-fest.

It's no secret that people love a good scare, and what better place to indulge in your love of intrigue than in the pages of a well-written thriller.

With the seasons quickly changing from summer to fall and the long cold days of winter not far behind, it's time to stock up on novels to fill the frigid and mundane days with a superb page-turner.

Grammar Guide

Best Biographies of All Time: Top 20 Most Interesting Reads

Kathy Edens

Kathy Edens

Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

best biographies

Have you ever read a biography that was gripping enough to keep you turning pages long after you should’ve been asleep? If not, then maybe you’re not reading the right books.

We culled the best of the best from over a half dozen sources, and still can’t capture all the great biographies worth reading.

Here, in no particular order, are the best biographies that read as good as, if not better than, fiction.

Final Thoughts

1. unbroken: a world war ii story of survival, resilience and redemption by laura hillenbrand.

best biography in the world

At once devastating and uplifting, Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, from his incorrigible boyhood actions to the sport that turned him around and led him to the Olympics.

But then WWII came calling, changing Louis and testing his endurance and ingenuity. The story comes full circle when, decades later, Zamperini returns to Japan, not as a POW, but as an honored guest at the Olympics.

2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

best biography in the world

Henrietta herself didn’t lead a glamorous life, but her cells, taken without her knowledge, have led to such ground-breaking accomplishments as the polio vaccine.

These cells, known as HeLa, are one of the most important tools in medicine and have been bought and sold by the billions. They are still alive today, over sixty years after Henrietta’s death.

3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

best biography in the world

Fiction couldn’t be as suspenseful and seductive as this real story about a death in one of Savannah’s grandest mansions in 1981. Was it murder or self-defense?

Peeling the curtain back on well-bred society ladies, gigolos, and a Southern belle who epitomizes "the soul of pampered self-absorption," this book has everything from drag queens to a voodoo priestess. You can’t make this stuff up.

4. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

best biography in the world

Imagine a young, well-to-do man who gave away all his money, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, then hitchhiked to Alaska and disappeared into the wilderness.

Four months later, hunters found his decomposed remains. This book tells the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless and his death in the wild.

5. Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil by Rüdiger Safranski

best biography in the world

Heidegger, a great philosopher without whom there would be no Sartre or Foucault, also had many failures and flaws.

He made a pact with the devil, Adolf Hitler, and teetered between good and evil, brilliance and blindness. This book chronicles his ideas and his personal commitments and betrayals.

6. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

best biography in the world

Based on over forty interviews with Jobs and hundreds with family, friends, colleagues, competitors, and adversaries, Walter Isaacson’s biography reads like a roller coaster ride.

This is the unvarnished truth: Jobs cooperated, but had no control over what Isaacson wrote or even the right to read it before publication. Nothing was off-limits.

7. John Adams by David McCullough

best biography in the world

John Adams was not just one of the founding fathers; he was a brilliant, fiercely independent, and always honest patriot totally committed to the American Revolution. McCullough intertwines politics, war, and social issues with love, religious faith, virtue, ambition, and betrayal to create one book you can’t put down.

8. Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

best biography in the world

Edna St. Vincent Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. She lived a flamboyant life in the Jazz Age alongside other literary heroes like F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Milford goes underneath the dazzling performance Edna puts on for the crowds and uncovers a rich and deep family connection between the three Millay sisters and their mother. One reviewer described it as a little bit Little Women with a touch of Mommy Dearest .

9. The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

best biography in the world

The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary was a thoroughly ambitious project that collected definitions from around the world.

There was one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, who contributed over 10,000, but the overseeing committee was stunned when they tracked him down to honor him. Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

10. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

best biography in the world

Another vivid story about a brilliant man teetering between genius and madness, this book reads like a suspense novel but is the true story of John Nash, a mathematical genius who slipped into madness.

Thanks to the support and loyalty of Nash’s admirers, he eventually won a Nobel Prize for triggering the game theory revolution.

11. Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

best biography in the world

An interesting insight into how a young man from a small provincial town moves to London in the 1500s and becomes the greatest playwright of all time.

Showing Shakespeare as an acutely sensitive and talented boy, Greenblatt helps you see, hear, and feel how he became the world-renowned playwright against the rich backdrop of Elizabethan life.

12. Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

best biography in the world

Author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston tells the gripping and horrifying story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade.

This is the story of Cudjo Lewis, abducted from Africa and put on the last "Black Cargo" ship to arrive in the United States. Lewis was captured and put in bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

13. The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel

best biography in the world

In 1913, a young unschooled Indian clerk wrote a letter to G. H. Hardy, a pre-eminent English mathematician, with several ideas about numbers.

Hardy realized the boy’s genius and arranged for Srinivasa Ramanujan to come to England. From the temples and slums of Madras to the courts and chapels of Cambridge University, the story of their journey together is inspiring and magical.

14. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera

best biography in the world

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo was a woman of extreme magnetism and originality thanks to her childhood experiences near Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution.

From a devastating accident that left her crippled and unable to bear children to her tempestuous marriage and intermittent love affairs, this is an extraordinary story of a 20th century woman who has become a legend.

15. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

best biography in the world

During the Civil Rights Movement, no one knew the story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians and their role in the space program.

Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, this group, called the "Human Computers," calculated the flight paths that would lead to historic achievements.

16. John Brown by W.E.B. Du Bois

best biography in the world

A groundbreaking political biography, John Brown moved Du Bois from his comfortable life as an academic to a lifelong career in social activism.

John Brown was the first Caucasian man willing to die for the rights of black people. The narrative Du Bois presents is compelling and one that is rarely presented in our history books.

17. Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His Mother by Sonia Nazario

best biography in the world

Award-winning journalist Nazario tells the vivid and engaging story of a Honduran boy’s unforgettable odyssey to reach his mother in the United States.

He has no money and only a slip of paper with his mother’s US telephone number. Enrique makes the hard and dangerous journey from Mexico the only way he knows how—clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains.

18. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

best biography in the world

In an interesting twist to the usual depiction of bloodthirsty pillagers, Weatherford shows how Genghis Khan introduced many progressive advancements to the societies he conquered.

Khan abolished torture, brought universal religious freedom, and destroyed feudal systems wherever he went. This is an engaging story of how he helped form the Mongol empire.

19. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

best biography in the world

Boyd was a world-class fighter pilot whose machinations changed warfare and strategy not only in the air but on the ground and at sea.

He is the founder of our modern concept of maneuver warfare, and his way of analyzing and solving problems is used today in corporate boardrooms.

20. Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Wiesen Cook

best biography in the world

Most first ladies didn’t do much beyond party planning, but Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to get things done.

Cook brings Roosevelt to life and shines a light on her political and social acumen in turning a meaningless position into one of power to influence and make change.

We didn’t want to stop here; there are so many more you should read. Let’s get a comprehensive list going in the comments below. What other unforgettable biographies did we miss?


Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books: The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise .

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The Art of Living

Best Biographies: The 70 BEST Biography Books of All Time

Blog > Book Recommendations

Arthur Worsley

Looking for the best biographies of all time?

You're in the right place!

Here's what you'll find on this page...

What Is a Biography?

I’ve scoured the internet for lists of top biographies , I’ve taken your suggestions on the best memoirs and best autobiographies you’ve ever read and I’ve collected them here in the definitive list of best biography books ever written.

What is a biography? As far as this list is concerned, a biography is any story that follows the life of a person. Some books explore events, objects or places. Many of those may use people’s stories to colour their narratives. But the difference between those books and the best historical biographies is that good biographies keep both eyes on their heroes.

The 70 Best Biographies Ever Written

Why these best biographies and not others? To stay objective, I rank all my book recommendations by what’s most loved (Goodreads rating), what’s most popular (Goodreads review count) and what’s proven timelessly relevant (first publication date).

This isn’t a whimsical list . It’s a data-driven, crowdsourced collection of the best biographies ever published as decided by book lovers just like you. ( Note : To maximise diversity, I only include the top ranking book from any series in a list.)

And if you think something's missing?  I LOVE book recommendations so if there are any other best biographies that you think deserve mentioning, email me and I’ll be sure to include them in the next round of updates.

Until then, enjoy this ultimate list of the 70 best biographies of all time...

Books 1-10: The Top 10 Best Biographies of All Time

The top 10 best biographies of all time are...

Best Biographies: Man's Search for Meaning

Books 11-70: The Best Biographies to Read Next

Here are the next best biographies from my database...

Best Biographies FAQs

Why you should read biographies.

The best biographies combine the life-wisdom and lessons you'd expect from nonfiction with the readability and storytelling you'd expect from a novel. They're often easy to read and they're a wonderful way to experience the world through the eyes of someone who may see and have experienced things very differently. Click here to check out my ranked list of the 70 best biographies of all time .

What is the best selling autobiography of all time?

The best selling autobiography of all time is almost certainly  The Diary of a Young Girl  by Anne Frank. While there's no accurate data on best selling biographies, Anne's diary ranks highest on this list of the best selling books of all time , which makes it a likely contender. Other best selling autobiographies include Night (The Night Trilogy, #1)  by Elie Wiesel and The Glass Castle  by Jeannette Walls.

What's the best autobiography to read?

The top two books on this list - Night (The Night Trilogy, #1)  and The Autobiography of Malcolm X  - are both fantastic autobiographies. Other top-ranked options include famous autobiographies like The Diary of a Young Girl  by Anne Frank and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  by Maya Angelou. Want more ideas? Click here to read the full list of best biographies and best autobiographies ever written.

What are some good biographies to read?

The top-ranked biographies on my list (and a good place to start) are Night (The Night Trilogy, #1) , The Autobiography of Malcolm X  and The Complete Maus  (graphic novel). For more ideas on some good biographies to read, check out the full list of the top 70 biography books of all time .

More Book Recommendations

Enjoyed this list of the best biographies of all time?

You'll also like TAoL 's other book recommendations...

More Best Books of All Time (by Type)

These are some lists of overall best books to read...

More Best Nonfiction Books (by Topic)

These are some lists of best nonfiction books to read...

More Best Fiction Books (by Genre)

These are some lists of best fiction books to read...

Or, you can read all my book recommendations .

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The 21 most captivating biographies of all time

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For centuries, books have allowed readers to be whisked away to magical lands, romantic beaches, and historical events. Biographies take readers through time to a single, remarkable life memorialized in gripping, dramatic, or emotional stories. They give us the rare opportunity to understand our heroes — or even just someone we would never otherwise know. 

To create this list, I chose biographies that were highly researched, entertainingly written, and offer a fully encompassing lens of a person whose story is important to know in 2021. 

The 21 best biographies of all time:

The biography of a beloved supreme court justice.

best biography in the world

"Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg" by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $16.25

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon who spent her life fighting for gender equality and civil rights in the legal system. This is an inspirational biography that follows her triumphs and struggles, dissents, and quotes, packaged with chapters titled after Notorious B.I.G. tracks — a nod to the many memes memorializing Ginsburg as an iconic dissident. 

The startlingly true biography of a previously unknown woman

best biography in the world

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $8.06

Henrietta was a poor tobacco farmer, whose "immortal" cells have been used to develop the polio vaccine, study cancer, and even test the effects of an atomic bomb — despite being taken from her without her knowledge or consent. This biography traverses the unethical experiments on African Americans, the devastation of Henrietta Lacks' family, and the multimillion-dollar industry launched by the cells of a woman who lies somewhere in an unmarked grave.

The poignant biography of an atomic bomb survivor

best biography in the world

"A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai: Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb" by Paul Glynn, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $16.51

Takashi Nagai was a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. A renowned scientist and spiritual man, Nagai continued to live in his ruined city after the attack, suffering from leukemia while physically and spiritually helping his community heal. Takashi Nagai's life was dedicated to selfless service and his story is a deeply moving one of suffering, forgiveness, and survival.

The highly researched biography of Malcolm X

best biography in the world

"The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X" by Les Payne and Tamara Payne, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $18.99

Written by the investigative journalist Les Payne and finished by his daughter after his passing, Malcolm X's biography "The Dead are Arising" was written and researched over 30 years. This National Book Award and Pulitzer-winning biography uses vignettes to create an accurate, detailed, and gripping portrayal of the revolutionary minister and famous human rights activist. 

The remarkable biography of an Indigenous war leader

best biography in the world

"The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History" by Joseph M. Marshall III, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $14.99 

Crazy Horse was a legendary Lakota war leader, most famous for his role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn where Indigenous people defeated Custer's cavalry. A descendant of Crazy Horse's community, Joseph M. Marshall III drew from research and oral traditions that have rarely been shared but offer a powerful and culturally rich story of this acclaimed Lakota hero.

The captivating biography about the cofounder of Apple

best biography in the world

"Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $16.75

Steve Jobs is a cofounder of Apple whose inventiveness reimagined technology and creativity in the 21st century. Water Issacson draws from 40 interviews with Steve Jobs, as well as interviews with over 100 of his family members and friends to create an encompassing and fascinating portrait of such an influential man.

The shocking biography of a woman committed to an insane asylum

best biography in the world

"The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear" by Kate Moore, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $22.49

This biography is about Elizabeth Packard, a woman who was committed to an asylum in 1860 by her husband for being an outspoken woman and wife. Her story illuminates the conditions inside the hospital and the sinister ways of caretakers, an unfortunately true history that reflects the abuses suffered by many women of the time.

The defining biography of a formerly enslaved man

best biography in the world

"Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $12.79

50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States, Cudjo Lewis was captured, enslaved, and transported to the US. In 1931, the author spent three months with Cudjo learning the details of his life beginning in Africa, crossing the Middle Passage, and his years enslaved before the Civil War. This biography offers a first-hand account of this unspoken piece of painful history.

The biography of a famous Mexican painter

best biography in the world

"Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo" by Hayden Herrera, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $24.89

Filled with a wealth of her life experiences, this biography of Frida Kahlo conveys her intelligence, strength, and artistry in a cohesive timeline. The book spans her childhood during the Mexican Revolution, the terrible accident that changed her life, and her passionate relationships, all while intertwining her paintings and their histories through her story.

The exciting biography of Susan Sontag

best biography in the world

"Sontag: Her Life and Work" by Benjamin Moser, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $20.24

Susan Sontag was a 20th-century writer, essayist, and cultural icon with a dark reputation. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, archived works, and photographs, this biography extends across Sontag's entire life while reading like an emotional and exciting literary drama.

The biography that inspired a hit musical

best biography in the world

"Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $11.04

The inspiration for the similarly titled Broadway musical, this comprehensive biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton aims to tell the story of his decisions, sacrifice, and patriotism that led to many political and economic effects we still see today. In this history, readers encounter Hamilton's childhood friends, his highly public affair, and his dreams of American prosperity. 

The award-winning biography of an artistically influential man

best biography in the world

"The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke" by Jeffrey C Stewart, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $25.71

Alain Locke was a writer, artist, and theorist who is known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Outlining his personal and private life, Alain Locke's biography is a blooming image of his art, his influences, and the far-reaching ways he promoted African American artistic and literary creations.

The remarkable biography of Ida B. Wells

best biography in the world

"Ida: A Sword Among Lions" by Paula J. Giddings, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $15.99

This award-winning biography of Ida B. Wells is adored for its ability to celebrate Ida's crusade of activism and simultaneously highlight the racially driven abuses legally suffered by Black women in America during her lifetime. Ida traveled the country, exposing and opposing lynchings by reporting on the horrific acts and telling the stories of victims' communities and families. 

The tumultuous biography that radiates queer hope

best biography in the world

"The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" by Randy Shilts, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $11.80

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California who was assassinated after 11 months in office. Harvey's inspirational biography is set against the rise of LGBTQIA+ activism in the 1970s, telling not only Harvey Milk's story but that of hope and perseverance in the queer community. 

The biography of a determined young woman

best biography in the world

"Obachan: A Young Girl's Struggle for Freedom in Twentieth-Century Japan" by Tani Hanes, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $9.99

Written by her granddaughter, this biography of Mitsuko Hanamura is an amazing journey of an extraordinary and strong young woman. In 1929, Mitsuko was sent away to live with relatives at 13 and, at 15, forced into labor to help her family pay their debts. Determined to gain an education as well as her independence, Mitsuko's story is inspirational and emotional as she perseveres against abuse. 

The biography of an undocumented mother

best biography in the world

"The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story" by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $18.40

Born in Mexico and growing up undocumented in Arizona, Aida Hernandez was a teen mother who dreamed of moving to New York. After being deported and separated from her child, Aida found herself back in Mexico, fighting to return to the United States and reunite with her son. This suspenseful biography follows Aida through immigration courts and detention centers on her determined journey that illuminates the flaws of the United States' immigration and justice systems.

The astounding biography of an inspiring woman

best biography in the world

"The Black Rose: The Dramatic Story of Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Female Millionaire" by Tananarive Due, available on Amazon for $19

Madam C.J. Walker is most well-known as the first Black female millionaire, though she was also a philanthropist, entrepreneur, and born to former slaves in Louisiana. Researched and outlined by famous writer Alex Haley before his death, the book was written by author Tananarive Due, who brings Haley's work to life in this fascinating biography of an outstanding American pioneer.

A biography of the long-buried memories of a Hiroshima survivor

best biography in the world

"Surviving Hiroshima: A Young Woman's Story" by Anthony Drago and Douglas Wellman, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $15.59

When Kaleria Palichikoff was a child, her family fled Russia for the safety of Japan until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima when she was 22 years old. Struggling to survive in the wake of unimaginable devastation, Kaleria set out to help victims and treat the effects of radiation. As one of the few English-speaking survivors, Kaleria was interviewed extensively by the US Army and was finally able to make a new life for herself in America after the war.

A shocking biography of survival during World War II

best biography in the world

"Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival" by Laura Hillenbrand, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $8.69

During World War II, Louis Zamperini was a lieutenant bombardier who crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Struggling to stay alive, Zamperini pulled himself to a life raft where he would face great trials of starvation, sharks, and enemy aircraft. This biography creates an image of Louis from boyhood to his military service and depicts a historical account of atrocities during World War II.  

The comprehensive biography of an infamous leader

best biography in the world

"Mao: The Unknown Story" by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $15.39

Mao was a Chinese leader, a founder of the People's Republic of China, and a nearly 30-year chairman of the Chinese Communist Party until his death in 1976. Known as a highly controversial figure who would stop at very little in his plight to rule the world, the author spent nearly 10 years painstakingly researching and uncovering the painful truths surrounding his political rule.

The emotional biography of a Syrian refugee

best biography in the world

"A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee's Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival" by Melissa Fleming, available on Amazon and Bookshop from $15.33

When Syrian refugee Doaa met Bassem, they decided to flee Egypt for Europe, becoming two of thousands seeking refuge and making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. After four days at sea, their ship was attacked and sank, leaving Doaa struggling to survive with two small children clinging to her and only a small inflation device around her wrist. This is an emotional biography about Doaa's strength and her dangerous and deadly journey towards freedom.

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51 best autobiographies & biographies of all time

Enlightening and inspiring: these are the best autobiographies and biographies to read this year..

best biography in the world

Reading an autobiography can offer a unique insight into a world and experience very different from your own – and these real-life stories are even more entertaining, and stranger, than fiction. Take a glimpse into the lives of some of the world's most inspiring and successful celebrities, politicians and sports people and more in our edit of the best autobiographies and biographies to read right now.

The best inspiring autobiographies and biographies

Finding hildasay, by christian lewis.

Book cover for Finding Hildasay

After hitting rock bottom having suffered with depression for years, Christian Lewis made an impulsive decision to walk the entire coastline of the UK. Just a few days later he set off with a tent, walking boots and a tenner in his pocket. Finding Hildasay tells us some of this incredible story, including the brutal three months Christian Lewis spent on the uninhabited island of Hildasay in Scotland with no fresh water or food. It was there, where his route was most barren, that he discovered pride and respect for himself. This is not just a story of a remarkable journey, but one of depression, survival and the meaning of home. 

by Yusra Mardini

Book cover for Butterfly

After fleeing her native Syria to the Turkish coast in 2015, Yusra Mardini boarded a small dinghy full of refugees headed for Greece. On the journey, the boat's engine cut out and it started to sink. Yusra, her sister, and two others took to the water to push the overcrowded boat for three and a half hours in open water, saving the lives of those on board. Butterfly is Yusra Mardini's journey from war-torn Damascus to Berlin and from there to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Game. A UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and one of People magazine's 25 Women Changing the World, discover Yusra and her incredible story of resilience and unstoppable spirit.

Celebrating the Seasons with the Yorkshire Shepherdess

By amanda owen.

Book cover for Celebrating the Seasons with the Yorkshire Shepherdess

From the rural heart of Swaledale, Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen shares stories of life with a large family and a large herd of sheep, as the year turns from lambing to haymaking to midwinter feeds in the snow. From leaping hares to rare moorland flowers, her beautiful photos help bring the text to life, as do the interspersed recipes for the seasonal meals she feeds her family. Yorkshire curd tart anyone?

This is Going to Hurt

By adam kay.

Book cover for This is Going to Hurt

Offering a unique insight into life as an NHS junior doctor through his diary entries, Adam Kay's bestselling autobiography is equal parts heartwarming and humorous, and oftentimes horrifying too. With 97-hour weeks, life and death decisions and a tsunami of bodily fluids, Kay provides a no-holds-barred account of working on the NHS frontline. Now a major BBC comedy-drama, don't miss this special edition of This Is Going To Hurt including a bonus diary entries and an afterword from the author. 

Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas

Book cover for Twas The Nightshift Before Christmas

This is Going to Hurt gave readers an unparalleled insight into the work of a junior doctor, with a dose of wry wit but no less emotion. In Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas Adam returns to his shifts on the ward amidst the festive season: when hospital admissions reach their height. This is a love letter to all those who spend their festive season on the front line, removing babies and baubles from the various places they get stuck, at the most wonderful time of the year. He reminds us to think of those working to care for the UK during a time that many of us think of as a blissful haze of parties and presents. 

A Fortunate Woman

By polly morland.

Book cover for A Fortunate Woman

Funny, emotional and imbued with great depth, A Fortunate Woman is an exploration of the life of a country doctor in a remote and wild wooded valley in the Forest of Dean. The story was sparked when writer and documentary maker Polly Morland found a photograph of the valley she lives in tucked inside a tattered copy of John Berger’s  A Fortunate Man . Itself an account of the life of a country doctor, the book inspired a woman doctor to follow her vocation in the same remote place. And it is the story of this woman that Polly Morland tells, in this compelling portrait of landscape and community.

Crying in H Mart

By michelle zauner.

Book cover for Crying in H Mart

This radiant read by singer, songwriter and guitarist Michelle Zauner delves into the experience of being the only Asian-American child at her school in Eugene, Oregon, combined with family struggles and blissful escapes to her grandmother's tiny Seoul apartment. The family bond is the shared love of Korean food, which helped Michelle reclaim her Asian identity in her twenties. A lively, honest, riveting read.

Lily's Promise

By lily ebert.

Book cover for Lily's Promise

This is the moving story of Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert, written with her great-grandson Dov. When Lily was liberated at the end of the Second World War, a Jewish-American soldier handed her a banknote with the words ‘the start to a new life, good luck and happiness!’ written on it. Decades later, when Lily was 96, Dov decided to use social media to track down the family of that soldier. Lily finally told her compelling life story to the world, fulfilling the promise she made to her 16-year-old self to share the horrors of the holocaust with the world – in the hope that such evil would never be seen again.

Hope Not Fear

By hassan akkad.

Book cover for Hope Not Fear

Hassan Akkad is a filmmaker and photographer who had to flee his home in Damascus and, via unrest, protest and torture, seek asylum in the UK. Here he documented the work of cleaners on a London Covid-19 ward, a project which led the UK government to U-turn on excluding cleaners and porters from the bereavement compensation scheme. Akkad's theme of finding connection through kindness and love has universal resonance, and makes this a truly inspiring read.

by Nikesh Shukla

Book cover for Brown Baby

In  Brown Baby , Nikesh Shukla, author of the bestselling  The Good Immigrant , explores themes of racism, feminism, parenting and our shifting ideas of home. This memoir, by turns heartwrenching, hilariously funny and intensely relatable, is dedicated to the author’s two young daughters, and serves as an act of remembrance to the grandmother they never had a chance to meet. Through love, grief, food and fatherhood, Shukla shows how it’s possible to believe in hope.

Adventures Of The Yorkshire Shepherdess

Book cover for Adventures Of The Yorkshire Shepherdess

If you've ever dreamed of packing up and starting a whole new life somewhere new (and who hasn't at least once this year) then Amanda Owen's inspiring autobiography is for you. Charting her life with her husband and nine children on their hill farm in Yorkshire, Amanda shares the family's many escapades with a warmth and humour that will have you dreaming of your own farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales…

The Colour of Madness

By samara linton.

Book cover for The Colour of Madness

The Colour of Madness  brings together memoirs, essays, poetry, short fiction and artworks by people of colour who have experienced difficulties with mental health. From experiencing micro-aggressions to bias, and stigma to religious and cultural issues, people of colour have to fight harder than others to be heard and helped. Statistics show that people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK experience poor mental health treatment in comparison to their white counterparts, and are more likely to be held under the Mental Health Act. 

The Diary of a Young Girl

By anne frank.

Book cover for The Diary of a Young Girl

No list of inspiring autobiographies would be complete without Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl . Charting the thirteen-year-old's time hiding in a 'Secret Annex' with her family to escape Gestapo detection, this book (which was discovered after Anne Frank's death), is a must-read, and a testament to the courage shown by the millions persecuted during the Second World War. 

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

By maya angelou.

Book cover for I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

A favourite book of former president Obama and countless others, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , recounts Angelou’s childhood in the American south in the 1930s. A beautifully written classic, this is the first of Maya Angelou's seven bestselling autobiographies. 

I Am Malala

By malala yousafzai.

Book cover for I Am Malala

After speaking out about her right to education almost cost her her life, Malala Yousafzi refused to be silenced. Instead, her amazing story has taken her all over the world. This is the story of Malala and her inspirational family, and of how one person's voice can inspire change across the globe. 

by Michelle Obama

Book cover for Becoming

This bestselling autobiography lifts the lid on the life of one of the most inspiring women of a generation, former first lady Michelle Obama. From her childhood as a gifted young woman in south Chicago to becoming the first black First Lady of the USA, Obama tells the story of her extraordinary life with humour, warmth and honesty. 

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

By lindsey hilsum.

Book cover for In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

In her job as a foreign correspondent, Marie Colvin reported from some of the most dangerous places in the world. It was a job that would eventually cost her her life. In this posthumous biography of the award-winning news journalist, Lindsey Hilsum shares the story of one of the most daring and inspirational women of our times with warmth and wit, conveying Colvin's trademark glamour. 

The best memoirs

Nothing but the truth, by the secret barrister.

Book cover for Nothing But The Truth

How do you become a barrister? Why do only 1 per cent of those who study law succeed in joining this mysterious profession? And why might a practising barrister come to feel the need to reveal the lies, secrets, failures and crises at the heart of this world of wigs and gowns? Full of hilarious, shocking and surprising stories,  Nothing But The Truth  tracks the Secret Barrister’s transformation from hang ‘em and flog ‘em, austerity-supporting twenty-something to a campaigning, bestselling, reforming author whose writing in defence of the law is celebrated around the globe.

Scenes from My Life

By michael k. williams.

Book cover for Scenes from My Life

When Michael K. Williams died on 6 September 2021, he left behind a career as one of the most electrifying actors of his generation. At the time of his death, Williams had nearly finished his memoir, which traces his life in whole, from his childhood and his early years as a dancer to his battles with addiction. Alongside his achievements on screen he was a committed activist who dedicated his life to helping at-risk young people find their voice and carve out their future. Imbued with poignance and raw honesty,  Scenes from My Life  is the story of a performer who gave his all to everything he did – in his own voice, in his own words.

The Happiest Man on Earth

By eddie jaku.

Book cover for The Happiest Man on Earth

A lesson in how happiness can be found in the darkest of times, this is the story of Eddie Jaku, a German Jew who survived seven years at the hands of the Nazis. Eddie Jaku always considered himself a German first, and a Jew second. All of that changed in November 1938, when he was beaten, arrested and taken to a concentration camp. But through his courage and tenacity he still came to live life as 'the happiest man on earth'. Published at the author turns one hundred, The Happiest Man on Earth is a heartbreaking but hopeful memoir full of inspiration. 

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I heard what you said, by jeffrey boakye.

Book cover for I Heard What You Said

Before Jeffrey Boakye was a black teacher, he was a black student. Which means he has spent a lifetime navigating places of learning that are white by default. Since training to teach, he has often been the only black teacher at school. At times seen as a role model, at others a source of curiosity, Boakye’s is a journey of exploration – from the outside looking in. In the groundbreaking  I Heard What You Said,  he recounts how it feels to be on the margins of the British education system. Thought-provoking, witty and completely unafraid,  I Heard What You Said  is a timely exploration of how we can dismantle racism in the classroom and do better by all our students.

Brown Girl Like Me

By jaspreet kaur.

Book cover for Brown Girl Like Me

Equal parts memoir and manifesto, Jaspreet Kaur equips women with the confidence and skillset they need to navigate the difficulties that come with an intersectional identity. Pulling no punches, and tackling topics from mental health and menstruation stigma to education and beauty standards,  Brown Girl Like Me  will educate, inspire and spark urgent conversations for change; essential reading for South Asian women and people with an interest in feminism and cultural issues.

by Jay Blades

Book cover for Making It

Making It  is an inspirational memoir about beating the odds and turning things around even when it all seems hopeless. Jay Blades reflects on strength, weakness and what it means to be a man. He shares the details of his life, from his childhood growing up on a council estate in Hackney, to his adolescence when he was introduced to violent racism at secondary school, to being brutalized by police as a teen, to finally becoming a beloved star of the hit primetime show  The Repair Shop . With Jay's positivity, pragmatism and kindness shining through every page, he shows that with care and love, anything can be mended.

The best royal biographies

Queen of our times, by robert hardman.

Book cover for Queen of Our Times

This is the definitive biography of Queen Elizabeth II by one of Britain’s leading royal authorities. With original insights from those who knew her best, interviews with world leaders and access to unseen papers, bestselling author Robert Hardman explores the full, astonishing life of our longest reigning monarch in this compellingly authoritative yet intimate biography.

The best sports autobiographies and biographies

By eddie jones.

Book cover for Leadership

One of the most successful sports coaches ever, Eddie Jones took three separate nations to Rugby World Cup Finals, and enjoyed a success rate with the England team of almost eighty per cent. An expert in guiding and managing high-performing teams, Jones believes that his methods can be applied to many walks of life. From fostering ambition to following your curiosity, Jones shares his methodology, much of it learned through conversations with other successful managers and leaders, including Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola. Leadership  is the ultimate guide to being your best, in rugby and in life.

Too Many Reasons to Live

By rob burrow.

Book cover for Too Many Reasons to Live

As a child, Rob Burrow was told he was too small to be a rugby player. Some 500 games for Leeds later, Rob had proved his doubters wrong: he won eight Super League Grand Finals, two Challenge Cups, three World Club Challenges and played for his country in two World Cups. In 2019 though, Rob was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given just two years to live. He went public with the news, determined to fight it all the way. Full of love, bravery and kindness, this is the story of a man who has awed his fans with his positive attitude to life.

Belonging: The Autobiography

By alun wyn jones.

Book cover for Belonging: The Autobiography

This is the tale of a lad from Mumbles who became the most capped rugby player of all time. Having watched the 1997 Lions Tour of South Africa in the hall of his school, he ascended the sport to become named the 2021 Lions Captain. This is a stirring story about physical achievement, but also about  perthyn , or belonging. Belonging to the team, to the legions of fans, to the great players of the past, and to the country of Wales itself.

My Life in Football

By kevin keegan.

Book cover for My Life in Football

Growing up the son of a miner in Doncaster in the 1950s, Kevin Keegan could only dream of representing his country at his favourite sport. From impressing as a young player at Scunthorpe United to scoring in front of The Kop and playing for his country, in My Life in Football the Liverpool and England legend shares how his dream became a reality. This inspiring sports autobiography from one of the legends of the beautiful game is the perfect read for any football fan. 

Kevin Keegan on his life in football

They don't teach this, by eniola aluko.

Book cover for They Don't Teach This

In her autobiography, footballer Eni Aluko addresses themes of dual nationality, race and institutional prejudice, success, gender and faith through her own experiences growing up in Britain. Part memoir, part manifesto for change, They Don't Teach This is a must-read book for 2020. 

At Home with Muhammad Ali

By hana yasmeen ali.

Book cover for At Home with Muhammad Ali

Written by his daughter Ali using material from her father's audio journals, love letters and her treasured family memories, this sports biography offers an intimate portrait of one of boxing's most legendary figures, and one of the most iconic sports personalities of all time. 

The best celebrity autobiographies and biographies

What are you doing here, by floella benjamin.

Book cover for What Are You Doing Here?

Actress, television presenter, member of the House of Lords – Baroness Floella Benjamin is an inspiration to many. But it hasn't always been easy: in What Are You Doing Here?   she describes her journey to London as part of the Windrush generation, and the daily racism that caused her so much pain as a child. She has gone on to remain true to her values, from breaking down barriers as a Play School presenter to calling for diversity at the BBC and BAFTA to resisting the pressures of typecasting. Sharing the lessons she has learned, imbued with her joy and positivity, this autobiography is the moving testimony of a remarkable woman.

A Funny Life

By michael mcintyre.

Book cover for A Funny Life

Comic Michael McIntyre specialises in pin-sharp observational routines that have made him the world's bestselling funny man. But when he turns his gaze to himself and his own family, things get even funnier. This bracingly honest memoir covers the highs, lows and pratfalls of a career in comedy, as Michael climbs the greasy pole of success and desperately attempts to stay up there.

by Elton John

Book cover for Me

Elton John is one of the most successful singer/songwriters of all time, but success didn't come easily to him. In his bestselling autobiography, he charts his extraordinary life, from the early rejection of his work to the heady heights of international stardom and the challenges that came along with it. With candour and humour, he tells the stories of celebrity friendships with John Lennon, George Michael and Freddie Mercury, and of how he turned his life around and found love with David Furnish. Me is the real story of the man behind the music. 

Gotta Get Theroux This

By louis theroux.

Book cover for Gotta Get Theroux This

After three decades reporting on the lives of some of the world's most extreme people, now Louis Theroux is telling his own story. From his socially awkward (his words, not ours) TV debut in 1994, to his journeys across America and his interview with now disgraced Jimmy Saville, Louis looks back on his career with his trademark razor-sharp observation and self-deprecating humour. 

Discover Louis Theroux’s favourite non-fiction books.

Louis Theroux's favourite true crime & non-fiction books

From rags to ricky, by sid owen.

Book cover for From Rags to Ricky

There's more to Sid Owen than loveable Ricky Butcher, the character he played in EastEnders . This is a sharp and authentic account of growing up with an armed robber father who ended up in prison, going out 'on the rob' and living with his mum and siblings on a north London council estate. Acting offered a way out, and at thirteen Owen was working with Donald Sutherland and Al Pacino. From a future where crime seemed the the only option, Owen has built a career that has seen him rise above deprivation and loss.

by Ronnie Spector

Book cover for Be My Baby

Featuring a new introduction by Keith Richards, Be My Baby  was described by Rolling Stone  magazine as one of the greatest rock memoirs ever written. The title comes from Ronnie Spector's first collaboration with producer Phil, and charts their ensuing marriage, as well as the way his Wall of Sound production drowned out her gorgeously emotive voice. A testimony to Ronnie's survival of marital abuse, the book also charts her glorious return to form, as she partied with David Bowie and toured with Bruce Springsteen.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey

By mariah carey.

Book cover for The Meaning of Mariah Carey

The global icon and award-winning singer shares the details of her incredible life in her first autobiography, The Meaning of Mariah Carey . From her meteoric rise to fame with a string of hits in the 1990s, to her reinventions, relationships and everything in between, this is Mariah's story, in her own words. 

Book cover for What Are You Doing Here?

Actress, television presenter, member of the House of Lords – Baroness Floella Benjamin is an inspiration to many. But it hasn't always been easy: in What Are You Doing Here?   she describes her journey to London as part of the Windrush generation, and the daily racism that caused her so much pain as a child. She has gone on to remain true to her values, from breaking down barriers as a Play School presenter to calling for diversity at the BBC and BAFTA to resisting the pressures of typecasting. Throughout her career, Benjamin has campaigned passionately for the needs of children, and has sparked joy amongst her many fans.

Every Good Boy Does Fine

By jeremy denk.

Book cover for Every Good Boy Does Fine

A New York Times bestseller, this uniquely illuminating memoir is the story of the making of a musician, in which renowned pianist Jeremy Denk explores what he learned from his teachers about classical music: its forms, its power, its meaning - and what it can teach us about ourselves.

Maybe I Don't Belong Here

By david harewood.

Book cover for Maybe I Don't Belong Here

When David Harewood was twenty-three, his acting career began to take flight and he had what he now understands to be a psychotic breakdown. He was physically restrained by six police officers, sedated, then hospitalized and transferred to a locked ward. Only now, thirty years later, has he been able to process what he went through. In this powerful and provocative account of a life lived after psychosis, critically acclaimed actor, David Harewood, uncovers a devastating family history and investigates the very real impact of racism on Black mental health.

Theroux the Keyhole

Book cover for Theroux the Keyhole

In  Theroux the Keyhole Louis takes us into his own home, where Covid kept him from his journalistic penchant of chasing the weird and wonderful world. Instead Louis is struggling to keep up with Joe Wicks, and with his video-game obsessed kids. Meanwhile he muses on podcasting, far-right radicalisation and the power of the pandemic to make us face up to the most important things in life.

by David Bailey

Book cover for Look Again

David Bailey looks back on his incredible life in Look Again , his fabulously entertaining celebrity autobiography. From shooting for Vogue during the swinging sixties to his relationships with international starlets and friendships with some of Britain's most iconic figures, this is the story of an East End boy who became one of the country's most successful photographers and had heaps of fun along the way. 

More Myself

By alicia keys.

Book cover for More Myself

Alicia Keys' More Myself is a celebrity autobiography with a difference. After years of playing sold-out arenas and topping the charts, Keys is now stepping back and asking, ‘who am I, really?’ Part memoir, part narrative documentary, More Myself offers an insight into the life and mind of one of the world's most celebrated musicians through her quest for her truth. 

Read an extract from More Myself.  

Read an extract from Alicia Keys's autobiography

Walking with ghosts, by gabriel byrne.

Book cover for Walking with Ghosts

Walking With Ghosts is the autobiography of Hollywood star Gabriel Byrne. Beginning with his formative years growing up the eldest of six children on the outskirts of Dublin in the 1960s, through to his journey from amateur dramatics groups to Hollywood and Broadway stardom, this poetic memoir is a heartwarming tribute to the Irish childhood that shaped Byrne and his craft. 

I Wanna Be Yours

By john cooper clarke.

Book cover for I Wanna Be Yours

As wry and funny as the man himself, I Wanna Be Yours is John Cooper Clarke's story, in his own words. In his trademark voice, which is as lyrical as his poetry, and with his brand of slightly sick humour, John shares tales of his performing career and his many remarkable friendships. This autobiography will be loved by both lifelong fans and new readers. 

Tina Turner: My Love Story

By tina turner.

Book cover for Tina Turner: My Love Story

She may be best known as the queen of rock' n' roll, but Tina Turner's life is so much more than her music. From her childhood picking cotton in Tennessee to her remarkable rise to fame and what lay beyond, in My Love Story she shares her extraordinary life, her joys and her struggles – all with heart-felt candour and courage.

Over the Top

By jonathan van ness.

Book cover for Over the Top

Best known as the ever-positive and effervescent grooming and self-care expert on Netflix's Queer Eye , Jonathan Van Ness has inspired thousands of people to embrace their truth since the hit show debuted in 2018. But for Van Ness, life hasn't been as positive and joyful as the image he radiates, and in his bestselling autobiography Over The Top he shares his raw, unfiltered and unexpected life story. 

The best political autobiographies and memoirs

The fall of boris johnson, by sebastian payne.

Book cover for The Fall of Boris Johnson

Sebastian Payne, Whitehall Editor for the Financial Times, tells the behind-the-scenes story of the fall of former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. After being touted saviour of the Conservative Party, it took Johnson just three years to resign after a series of scandals. From the blocked suspension of Owen Patterson to Partygate and the Chris Pincher allegations, Payne gives us unparalleled access to those who were in the room when key decisions were made, ultimately culminating in Boris's downfall. This is a gripping and timely look at how power is gained, wielded and lost in Britain today.

Promise Me, Dad

By joe biden.

Book cover for Promise Me, Dad

Get to know President-Elect Joe Biden through his deeply moving memoir. In Promise Me Dad , Biden charts the year in which his beloved son Beau passed away from the effects of a brain tumour as he fought to balance the twin imperatives of living up to his responsibilities to his country and his responsibilities to his family . Candid about his family's tragic loss and the impact it has had on him as both a man and a politician, this is not only a story of tragedy, but of hope and humanity. 

The Truths We Hold

By kamala harris.

Book cover for The Truths We Hold

Born the daughter of immigrants and civil rights activists in California, Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris grew up with a strong sense of social justice. In her bestselling memoir The Truths We Hold , she shares how her childhood and the lessons she's learnt in her career as a lawmaker have inspired and shaped the person and politician that she is today, and her manifesto for a fairer future. 

Dreams From My Father

By barack obama.

Book cover for Dreams From My Father

Published fifteen years before he was elected president of the USA, Dreams from My Father offers a unique portrait of Obama as a young man. In this bestselling autobiography, the former president retraces his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, and visits Kenya to confront the truth of his father's life, asking questions about identity, belonging and justice along the way. A must-read book before you pick up Obama's new autobiography, A Promised Land. 

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best biographies

50 Must-Read Biographies

The best biographies give us a satisfying glimpse into a great person’s life, while also teaching us about the context in which that person lived. Through biography, we can also learn history, psychology, sociology, politics, philosophy, and more. Reading a great biography is both fun and educational. What’s not to love?

Below I’ve listed 50 of the best biographies out there. You will find a mix of subjects, including important figures in literature, science, politics, history, art, and more. I’ve tried to keep this list focused on biography only, so there is little in the way of memoir or autobiography. In a couple cases, authors have written about their family members, but for the most part, these are books where the focus is on the biographical subject, not the author.

50 must-read biographies. book lists | biographies | must-read biographies | books about other people | great biographies | nonfiction reads

The first handful are group biographies, and after that, I’ve arranged them alphabetically by subject. Book descriptions come from Goodreads.

Take a look and let me know about your favorite biography in the comments!

All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen

“In  All We Know , Lisa Cohen describes their [Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland’s] glamorous choices, complicated failures, and controversial personal lives with lyricism and empathy. At once a series of intimate portraits and a startling investigation into style, celebrity, sexuality, and the genre of biography itself,  All We Know  explores a hidden history of modernism and pays tribute to three compelling lives.”

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

“Set amid the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program. Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as ‘Human Computers,’ calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women.”

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie

“In the mid-twentieth century four American Catholics came to believe that the best way to explore the questions of religious faith was to write about them – in works that readers of all kinds could admire.  The Life You Save May Be Your Own  is their story – a vivid and enthralling account of great writers and their power over us.”

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

“As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.”

The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

“In a sweeping narrative, Fraser traces the cultural, familial and political roots of each of Henry’s queens, pushes aside the stereotypes that have long defined them, and illuminates the complex character of each.”

John Adams by David McCullough

“In this powerful, epic biography, David McCullough unfolds the adventurous life-journey of John Adams, the brilliant, fiercely independent, often irascible, always honest Yankee patriot — ‘the colossus of independence,’ as Thomas Jefferson called him.”

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming

“Emotionally riveting and eye-opening,  A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea  is the incredible story of a young woman, an international crisis, and the triumph of the human spirit. Melissa Fleming shares the harrowing journey of Doaa Al Zamel, a young Syrian refugee in search of a better life.”

At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England by Walter Dean Myers

“One terrifying night in 1848, a young African princess’s village is raided by warriors. The invaders kill her mother and father, the King and Queen, and take her captive. Two years later, a British naval captain rescues her and takes her to England where she is presented to Queen Victoria, and becomes a loved and respected member of the royal court.”

John Brown by W.E.B. Du Bois

“ John Brown is W. E. B. Du Bois’s groundbreaking political biography that paved the way for his transition from academia to a lifelong career in social activism. This biography is unlike Du Bois’s earlier work; it is intended as a work of consciousness-raising on the politics of race.”

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster by Stephen L. Carter

“[Eunice Hunton Carter] was black and a woman and a prosecutor, a graduate of Smith College and the granddaughter of slaves, as dazzlingly unlikely a combination as one could imagine in New York of the 1930s ― and without the strategy she devised, Lucky Luciano, the most powerful Mafia boss in history, would never have been convicted.”

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

“An engrossing record of Mao’s impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of her family members.”

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

“Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnet, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.”

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

“Einstein was a rebel and nonconformist from boyhood days, and these character traits drove both his life and his science. In this narrative, Walter Isaacson explains how his mind worked and the mysteries of the universe that he discovered.”

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother by Sonia Nazario

“In this astonishing true story, award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario recounts the unforgettable odyssey of a Honduran boy who braves unimaginable hardship and peril to reach his mother in the United States.”

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

“After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve ‘the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century’: What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett & his quest for the Lost City of Z?”

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

“Amanda Foreman draws on a wealth of fresh research and writes colorfully and penetratingly about the fascinating Georgiana, whose struggle against her own weaknesses, whose great beauty and flamboyance, and whose determination to play a part in the affairs of the world make her a vibrant, astonishingly contemporary figure.”

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik Ping Zhu

“Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame she was just trying to make the world a little better and a little freer. But along the way, the feminist pioneer’s searing dissents and steely strength have inspired millions. [This book], created by the young lawyer who began the Internet sensation and an award-winning journalist, takes you behind the myth for an intimate, irreverent look at the justice’s life and work.”

Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd

“A woman of enormous talent and remarkable drive, Zora Neale Hurston published seven books, many short stories, and several articles and plays over a career that spanned more than thirty years. Today, nearly every black woman writer of significance—including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker—acknowledges Hurston as a literary foremother.”

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

“ Shirley Jackson  reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the literary genius behind such classics as ‘The Lottery’ and  The Haunting of Hill House .”

The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro

“This is the story of the rise to national power of a desperately poor young man from the Texas Hill Country. The Path to Power reveals in extraordinary detail the genesis of the almost superhuman drive, energy, and ambition that set LBJ apart.”

The Life of Samuel Johnson   by James Boswell

“Poet, lexicographer, critic, moralist and Great Cham, Dr. Johnson had in his friend Boswell the ideal biographer. Notoriously and self-confessedly intemperate, Boswell shared with Johnson a huge appetite for life and threw equal energy into recording its every aspect in minute but telling detail.”

Barbara Jordan: American Hero by Mary Beth Rogers

“Barbara Jordan was the first African American to serve in the Texas Senate since Reconstruction, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, and the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention. Yet Jordan herself remained a mystery.”

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera

“This engrossing biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo reveals a woman of extreme magnetism and originality, an artist whose sensual vibrancy came straight from her own experiences: her childhood near Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution; a devastating accident at age eighteen that left her crippled and unable to bear children.”

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph

“Often photographed in a cowboy hat with her middle finger held defiantly in the air, Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy (1916–2000) left a vibrant legacy as a leader of the Black Power and feminist movements. In the first biography of Kennedy, Sherie M. Randolph traces the life and political influence of this strikingly bold and controversial radical activist.”

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

“In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food.”

The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma by Peter Popham

“Peter Popham … draws upon previously untapped testimony and fresh revelations to tell the story of a woman whose bravery and determination have captivated people around the globe. Celebrated today as one of the world’s greatest exponents of non-violent political defiance since Mahatma Gandhi, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize only four years after her first experience of politics.”

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”   by Zora Neale Hurston

“In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine.”

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

“Acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin illuminates Lincoln’s political genius in this highly original work, as the one-term congressman and prairie lawyer rises from obscurity to prevail over three gifted rivals of national reputation to become president.”

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart

“A tiny, fastidiously dressed man emerged from Black Philadelphia around the turn of the century to mentor a generation of young artists including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jacob Lawrence and call them the New Negro — the creative African Americans whose art, literature, music, and drama would inspire Black people to greatness.”

Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux

“Drawing from the private archives of the poet’s estate and numerous interviews, Alexis De Veaux demystifies Lorde’s iconic status, charting her conservative childhood in Harlem; her early marriage to a white, gay man with whom she had two children; her emergence as an outspoken black feminist lesbian; and her canonization as a seminal poet of American literature.”

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams

“Thurgood Marshall stands today as the great architect of American race relations, having expanded the foundation of individual rights for all Americans. His victory in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case outlawing school segregation, would have him a historic figure even if he had not gone on to become the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court.”

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

“In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself.”

The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts

“ The Mayor of Castro Street  is Shilts’s acclaimed story of Harvey Milk, the man whose personal life, public career, and tragic assassination mirrored the dramatic and unprecedented emergence of the gay community in America during the 1970s.”

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

“The most famous poet of the Jazz Age, Millay captivated the nation: She smoked in public, took many lovers (men and women, single and married), flouted convention sensationally, and became the embodiment of the New Woman.”

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell

This book is “a vivid portrait of Montaigne, showing how his ideas gave birth to our modern sense of our inner selves, from Shakespeare’s plays to the dilemmas we face today.”

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

“From the moment it was first published in The New Yorker, this brilliant work of literary criticism aroused great attention. Janet Malcolm brings her shrewd intelligence to bear on the legend of Sylvia Plath and the wildly productive industry of Plath biographies.”

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley   by Peter Guralnick

“Based on hundreds of interviews and nearly a decade of research, [this book] traces the evolution not just of the man but of the music and of the culture he left utterly transformed, creating a completely fresh portrait of Elvis and his world.

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

“Kate Summerscale brilliantly recreates the Victorian world, chronicling in exquisite and compelling detail the life of Isabella Robinson, wherein the longings of a frustrated wife collided with a society clinging to rigid ideas about sanity, the boundaries of privacy, the institution of marriage, and female sexuality.”

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

“A young man from a small provincial town moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time. How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained?”

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan by Claire Tomalin

“When Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan met in 1857, she was 18: a professional actress performing in his production of  The Frozen Deep . He was 45: a literary legend, a national treasure, married with ten children. This meeting sparked a love affair that lasted over a decade, destroying Dickens’s marriage and ending with Nelly’s near-disappearance from the public record.”

Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter

“Slowly, but surely, Sojourner climbed from beneath the weight of slavery, secured respect for herself, and utilized the distinction of her race to become not only a symbol for black women, but for the feminist movement as a whole.”

The Black Rose by Tananarive Due

“Born to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and indignity to become America’s first black female millionaire, the head of a hugely successful beauty company, and a leading philanthropist in African American causes.”

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

“With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life, [Chernow] carries the reader through Washington’s troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian Wars, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention and his magnificent performance as America’s first president.”

Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings

“ Ida: A Sword Among Lions  is a sweeping narrative about a country and a crusader embroiled in the struggle against lynching: a practice that imperiled not only the lives of black men and women, but also a nation based on law and riven by race.”

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

“But the true saga of [Wilder’s] life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series—masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography.”

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

“Although mother and daughter, these two brilliant women never knew one another – Wollstonecraft died of an infection in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, a week after giving birth. Nevertheless their lives were so closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other.”

Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee

“Subscribing to Virginia Woolf’s own belief in the fluidity and elusiveness of identity, Lee comes at her subject from a multitude of perspectives, producing a richly layered portrait of the writer and the woman that leaves all of her complexities and contradictions intact.”

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

“Of the great figures in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins’ bullets at age thirty-nine.”

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

“On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.”

Want to read more about great biographies? Check out this post on presidential biographies , this list of biographies and memoirs about remarkable women , and this list of 100 must-read musician biographies and memoirs .

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Oct 18, 2017

25 Recommendations For Life Changing Biographies For The Voracious Reader In You

Smart people read biographies. Generalizations are usually worthless, but you can pretty much take this one to the bank.

Look at their libraries and you’ll see , one biography and memoir and autobiography after another. Of course, they read other things–it’s called being well rounded–but biographies are usually the core.

There’s a reason — it’s some of the most actionable and educational reading you can do. Think about it, a biography is a sweeping portrait of a life or a career. It covers vast swaths of material that the author must make immediately understood within the context of an individual and their life.

To understand George Washington, you have to understand the American Revolution. To understand Rockefeller, you have to explain the Gilded Age. To understand Amelia Earhart, the author must make real to the reader what it was like to be a woman in the early 1900s. Often times, they do it better than books specifically about those topics–because there is a narrative and a lens through which to access the themes.

Of course, a powerful biography — or autobiography — always has a moral. Whether it’s a rise and fall story, a story of redemption, a story of power corrupting, a story of love — every biography of a man or a woman teaches the reader. It teaches us to be like the subject or often, to be nothing like the subject.

I have not lived many years so my selection of biographies is only just getting started . I imagine I will take and add to these favorites the older I get and the more I read :

1. Plutarch’s Lives Volumes One & Two by Plutarch

There are few books more influential and ubiquitous in Western culture than Plutarch’s histories. Aside from being the basis of much of Shakespeare, he was one of Montaigne’s favorite writers.

His biographies and sketches of Pericles, Demosthenes, Themistocles, Cicero, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Fabius, are all excellent–and full of powerful anecdotes.

2. The Power Broker by Robert Caro

Could the biography of the former parks commissioner of New York be the definitive study of power and legacy? Apparently, because this book is it. It’s 1,000+ pages and you’ll read and learn from every single one.

It is incredibly long, but as one of the first books someone gave me when I moved to Hollywood, it holds a special sway over me. Like Huey Long and Willie Stark, Robert Moses was a man who got power, loved power and was transformed by power. We can learn from him–mostly what not to be and who not to become.

3. Socrates: A Man For Our Times , Napoleon: A Life , and Churchill by Paul Johnson

These are short, clear, but eye-opening biographies from Paul Johnson as part of a series. I strongly suggest reading all of them. Each is a fascinating figure for their own reasons.

Paul Johnson is the kind of author whose sweeping judgements you can trust, so you leave this book with what feels like a very solid understanding of who his subjects are a people.

4. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

The book has sold something like 5 million copies in Japan, which is insane. Totto-Chan is a special figure in modern Japanese culture — she is a celebrity on par with Oprah or Ellen, with a magazine, news show and exalted position to boot.

The book describes a childhood in pre-WWII Japan as a poorly misunderstood girl who obviously suffered from attention disorders and excess energy. It wasn’t until she met a special school principal — unlike any I have ever heard of — who finally GOT her.

And I mean understood and cared about and unconditionally supported her in a way that both inspires me and makes me deeply jealous. If only all of us could be so lucky…

5. All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt by John Taliaferro

I had this recommended to me by a random old lady in an elevator in Austin. I suppose you never know where good book recommendations come from but this one turned out to be fascinating surprise.

In his early 20s, John Hay started as a teenage legal assistant in the law office of Abraham Lincoln. He ended his career as the Secretary of State for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

How nuts is that?

You can basically understand the entire period of American history from the Civil War through WWI through one man who saw it all. Great biography of politics, the press, and American society.

6. Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

I did not fully appreciate what a strategic and political genius Eisenhower was until this book. He won WWII, ended Korea, kept us (mostly) out of Vietnam, twice prevented the use of nuclear weapons (which sent a world changing precedent), and those are the big ones in the book. He was a master of making it all look easy–which is why I think we forget to study him.

7. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

Boyd was a world class fighter pilot who changed warfare and strategy not just in the air, but on the ground and by sea. His concepts pioneered the modern concept of maneuver warfare (and were used for the First Gulf War). His method of problem solving and problem analysis — known as the OODA Loop — is now used in boardrooms and everywhere else.

He also perfected the art of “Getting Things Done” whether that was in war or in the bureaucracy of the Pentagon. You need to know and understand John Boyd.

8. Edison: A Biography by Matthew Josephson

Older biographies are better in my experience. This one is 50+ years old and that’s right in the sweet spot. It didn’t have to be trendy, it didn’t have to psychoanalyze, it didn’t have to be political correct or controversial. It just had to be a sweeping, conclusive picture of the man.

Modern enough to be historically accurate, old enough to still have respect for ambition. No question, this is a big book but I learned a lot. For instance, I had no idea that Edison had been mostly deaf (and that that deafness fueled and improved many of his sound inventions).

I didn’t know about his friendship with Henry Ford or what a shrewd businessman Edison was. If you like big biographies, read this.

9. Eleanor Roosevelt Volume One and Volume Two by Blanche Weisen Cook

The prospects Eleanor Roosevelt faced when she entered the White House were not good. First Ladies hadn’t done anything in decades besides party planning and a few of her predecessors had had nervous breakdowns. She wanted to do something different.

This is a book about her political and social acumen–her ability to turn a meaningless position into a powerful platform for change and influence. I read this book and came away so impressed. We can learn a lot.

10. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen

The book sucked me in completely. The subject, Samuel Zemurray, is fascinating and compelling. The writer has a voice that is utterly unique. Since reading this book, I have explored all of this further: I studied Zemurray (whose house was not far from mine in New Orleans and still stands) and use his story in my latest book The Obstacle Is The Way .

I interviewed the author, Rich Cohen . The book has all sorts of things going for it: it’s the American Dream, it’s history via microcosm, it’s drama/violence/intrigue, and it’s a course in business strategy and leadership.

11. Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office by Zack O’Malley Greenburg

Just because I didn’t want this list to be all stuffy old classics, I thought I’d put this interesting (and unofficial) biography of Jay-Z on here. This is a biography that also functions as a business book.

It shows how Jay applied hustling techniques to the music business and eventually built his empire. And related to that, I also recommend The 50th Law , which while not technically a biography tells the stories of many such individuals and will stick with you just as long.

12. No Hiding Place: An Autobiography & Asylum: An Alcoholic Takes the Cure by William Seabrook

In 1934, William Seabrook was one of the most famous journalists in the world. He was also an alcoholic. But there was no treatment for his disease. So he checked himself into an insane asylum.

There, from the perspective of a travel writer, he described his own journey through this strange and foreign place. Today, you can’t read a page in the book without seeing him bump, unknowingly, into the basic principles of 12-step groups and then thwarted by well-meaning doctors (like the one who decides he’s cured and can start drinking again).

On a regular basis, he says things so clear, so self-aware that you’re stunned an addict could have written it–shocked that this book isn’t a classic American text. Yet all his books are out of print and hard to find. Two of my copies are first editions from 1931 and 1942.

It breaks your heart to know that just a few years or decades later, his options (and outcome) would have been so very different (he eventually died of an opium overdose). No Hiding Place and Asylum are indescribably good. So good that a dying Fitzgerald wrote of how he related to them in his book The Crack Up .

13. Cyropaedia (a more accessible translation can be found in Xenophon’s Cyrus The Great: The Arts of Leadership and War ) by Xenophon

Xenophon, like Plato, was a student of Socrates. For whatever reason, his work is not nearly as famous, even though it is far more applicable. Unlike Plato, Xenophon studied people.

His greatest book is about the latter, it’s the best biography written of Cyrus the Great (aka the father of human rights). There are so many great lessons in here and I wish more people would read it. Machiavelli learned them, as this book inspired The Prince .

14. Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B.H. Liddell Hart

There is no better biography of a military genius, period. B.H. Liddell uses Sherman to not only explain the Civil War, but strategy itself.

It’s impossible to reduce a book down to just one thought or line, but Hart’s strategic explanation of attacking, always “along the line of least expectation and tactically along the line of least resistance” will change your life. Read about Sherman not because you want to learn about how the Civil War was won (though you will learn that), but to learn how wars are won, period.

15. Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer

The world needs more men like Pat Tillman. Ostensibly the story of a professional football player who gave up a $3M NFL contract to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, only to die under suspicious circumstances in the hills of Afghanistan, Where Men Win Glory is in its own way, a book about everything that is right and wrong with the military.

On the one hand, there is the honor and selflessness and bravery.

On the other, there is its inability to truly appreciate the individual, and of course, its shameful history of politics, ass-covering, and lack of accountability. Pat Tillman wasn’t perfect, but he was a man we could all learn a thing or two from.

16. The Kid Stays In The Picture: A Notorious Life by Robert Evans

One of the first books I read when I started working in Hollywood was Robert Evans’ classic The Kid Stays In The Picture (It’s also a great documentary). Evans is nuts.

I’m not sure how much there is to learn from the biography but it is a fascinating life story–better than fiction. I think it shows you how far hustle and hype and heat contribute to success. And that faith in yourself–deserved or not–goes a long way.

17. My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass

A man is born a slave. Man teaches himself to read. Man decides he will no longer consent to being whipped, realizes that slavery is dependent on this consent and then leaves it.

In fact, his self-education was so complete that he went on to become one of America’s foremost intellectuals. That is the life of Frederick Douglass. You need to read it.

18. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters by Ulysses S. Grant

Written by Ulysses S. Grant while at death’s door (and edited by Mark Twain), these are the thoughts of the man who won the Civil War through grit and determination and persistence (shockingly, traits lacked by almost all the generals who proceeded him).

He calls the Mexican-American War one of the worst and most pointless wars, and the Civil War one of the most important and justified. There is a moment in the book early in Grant’s career as a soldier where he was sent to hunt down a band of guerrillas, shaking with fear as he arrived at their camp only to find they had run away.

It was then that he realized the enemy was often as scared of you as you were of them. It changed his approach to battle forever. I think about that line often.

19. Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel by David Fraser

It’s going to feel weird reading a book about a German general in WWII but for Rommel we must make an exception. Yes, he fought for a terrible cause. But he did so brilliantly — as a soldier, strategist, and leader. His victories in North Africa were the stuff of legend, and had the US and British troops not ultimately had better resources, the whole thing might have turned out very differently. Y

ou cannot read about Rommel and not like and admire the man. I’m saying this so you’ll be prepared and ready to remind yourself that that doesn’t excuse his actions. But you can still learn from him .

20. Hurricane: The Life of Rubin Carter, Fighter by James S. Hirsch

Hurricane Carter’s biography is about a man who refused to be anything but himself — even in prison. There are great parallels to his personal struggles to maintain the sovereignty of self amidst awful circumstances and the lessons of Stoicism.

My favorite: how he refused to sue the government after his wrongful conviction was overturned because it’d be saying that they’d taken something from him, that he was still dependent on them which even after decades in prison he refused to resign himself to accepting.

21. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow

A biography has to be really good to make read you all 800 pages. To me, this was one of those books. Since reading it last year, I’ve since found out it is the favorite book of a lot of people I respect.

I think it says something about the quality of the writing and the empathic understanding of the writer that the main lessons you would take away from someone like Rockefeller would not be business, but life lessons. In fact, when I went back through and took notes on this book, I filled out more cards for Stoicism than I did for Strategy, Business or Money.

I found Rockefeller to be strangely stoic, incredibly resilient and, despite his reputation as a robber baron, humble and compassionate. Most people get WORSE as they get successful, many more get worse as they age. Rockefeller did neither of these things, he grew more open-minded the older he became, more generous, more pious, more dedicated to making a difference.

Does that excuse the “awful” things that he did? Well, the things he did really weren’t that awful so yes. (By that I mean I’d certainly choose him over the robber barons of this age like Zuckerberg or Murdoch.)

22. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X, Alex Haley

I forget who said it but I heard someone say that Catcher in the Rye was to young white boys what the Autobiography of Malcolm X was to young black boys. Personally, I prefer that latter over the former.

I would much rather read about and emulate a man who is born into adversity and pain, struggles with criminality, does prison time, teaches himself to read through the dictionary , finds religion and then becomes an activist for Civil Rights before being gunned down by his former supporters when he tempers the hate and anger that had long defined parts of his message.

23. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt & Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

When I was younger I would ask any smart or successful person I met to recommend a book for me to read. Dr. Drew recommended that I read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt . It immediately became a lifetime favorite that I have reread several times (Amazon tells me I bought it Oct 26, 2006).

It ends the day he is telegraphed that McKinley has been assassinated–so the book focuses on everything before that from his unusual childhood and struggle with asthma to his love nature to his trip west after the simultaneous death of his wife and mother. I’m not sure why I took so long to read this sequel but it is just as good, if not better.

Focusing on Roosevelt from the end of presidency to the end of his life, there is enough material just in that portion of his life to put everyone else to shame. It covers his retirement, his safari in Africa, his exploration of the River of Doubt, his run as a third party candidate and finally his heartbreaking struggles with WWI and his son’s death. Goddamn, TR was a good man.

24. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Washington’s status as an icon shamefully understates his genius as a strategist. The man had an impeccable intuition for timing, for gestures, for politics, for the moment to strike, not just on the battlefield but in relationships, in office and in his private life.

We must study Washington not only for his nearly unbelievable military victory over a superior British Army, but also for his strategic vision which quite literally was responsible for many of the most enduring American institutions and practices.

I admit this book is long, but it is so good. It is packed with illustrative examples, analysis and stories. Read it.

25. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

It’s unusual for modern biographies to be this good. It’s especially unusually for the subject of the biography to approach the biographer in the way that Steve Jobs did (thinking that he was the intellectual heir of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein).

But despite those two things, this bio is and will likely forever be a classic. It shows Jobs at his best–determined, creative, prophetic–and at his worst–petty, selfish, tyrannical and vicious. You can learn just as much about what kind of leader you probably don’t want to be from this book as you can from anything else. That’s what is so strange about Jobs and this biography.

You read it and you’re blown away and impressed but I think very few of us think: yeah, I want to be that guy. I want to treat my kids that way, I want to be obsessed with trivial design things that way,

I want to hate that way, and so on. You admire him but you also see him as a tragic figure. That’s how you know that Isaacson did an amazing job with this book.

Bonus: Fictional Biographies Bonus—These are not real biographies/autobiographies, so I won’t go into detail but I think they are great studies of people and life: Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Check them out.

Personally, I try to read at least one biography a month (if you’re looking for regular recommendations here ). If you have any favorites or suggestions–pass them my way.

This article was originally published on Thought Catalog .

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