Like the best books for men, the best biographies are never just a portrait of a single, solitary person divorced from time and place. Rather, biographies are a way to understand how important points of history are shaped by the course of one, extraordinary life. Whether they’re industrialists and presidents or artists and writers, individual cultural leaders can reshape history in profound ways. The best biographies allow us to understand these people as more than just myths, but as people with faults who made decisions and sacrifices to get to where they are.
While there are plenty of glowing biographies of beloved historical figures, not every biography is necessarily about a person the author admires. Take Robert Caro’s iconic biography The Power Broker, a critical look at Robert Moses, an urban planner who went from a fairly unknown figure to one of the most controversial figures in New York City’s political history. Or Anderson Cooper’s assessment of the ruthlessness of the Vanderbilt dynasty, of which he’s a descendant.
But not every biography is even a portrait of someone famous or powerful. Many biographies are about how ordinary people, who are caught up in the course of history, respond to extraordinary circumstances. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea are two great examples.
And of course, there are plenty of inspiring stories of accomplished figures that are worthy of admiration. These are some great biographies to add to your bookshelf. We’ve focused on biographies, rather than memoirs or autobiographies for this list. Many of these options are available in Kindle or audiobook form.
The Power Broker by Robert Caro
Want to take a really deep dive? The Power Broker, published in 1975, is a nearly 1,400-page book that details urban planner Robert Moses’ rise to power. Moses, despite never holding elected office, became one of the most powerful people in New York, and singlehandedly shaped much of the city. Despite having been published in 1975, this book is as timely as ever, popping up on countless Zoom backgrounds and earning an offhand reference by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg while discussing infrastructure. The book earned Caro a Pulitzer and turned him into one of the most respected biographers.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
The story of Steve Jobs has been told many times, in many forms, but Walter Isaacson’s book remains one of the most influential, if controversial, accounts of Jobs. Isaacson was personally tapped by Jobs and given an incredible amount of access. Critics might note that Isaacson being handpicked by Jobs would make him more biased, although Jobs and Isaacson stated Jobs had no input over the book other than the cover. Plus, not everyone will feel that this is an overly glossy portrait of Jobs, least of all Tim Cook, who felt that the book unfairly portrayed Jobs as selfish. In any case, it’s a story of a historical figure told by someone with front-row seats, making it one of the best biographies out there.
Grant by Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow’s most famous book is probably Alexander Hamilton; Chernow’s biography was the inspiration behind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical. But Ulysses S. Grant is an equally absorbing and misunderstood historical figure. Grant was a general during the Civil War and President during Reconstruction, a period in which he attempted to sew together the torn bonds of the country while also trying to protect the rights of the formerly enslaved. Abraham Lincoln is rightly hailed as a hero, but Ulysses Grant was also an incredible — if imperfect — historical figure.
A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea by Melissa Fleming
Not every worthy biography is about a powerful or famous person. Sometimes the most worthy subjects are the least powerful. A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea tells the story of the Syrian refugee crisis through one young woman, who was charged with caring for two children she didn’t know. Sometimes the best way to understand a crisis is to personalize it, and that’s what Fleming does with this incredible biography.
James Baldwin: A Biography by David Leeming
James Baldwin was an essayist and novelist who used his incredible mastery over the English language to plumb the depths of the American soul, as well as his own. But despite autobiographical novels, personal essays and widely available debates and speeches, Baldwin the man is somehow still mysterious. David Leeming’s 1994 book reveals more about the author as a person. Leeming worked for and was friends with Baldwin.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
What if you were incredibly important to the course of history and science, and you didn’t even know it? The eponymous woman in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a poor farmer whose cancerous cells, taken from her without her knowledge, became instrumental in numerous scientific and medical developments. She died well before this became public knowledge, but author Rebecca Skloot worked with Lacks’ family to learn more, bearing one of the many historical cases of abuse by the medical industry against black people, especially women. Those cells are alive today and were used in COVID-19 research.
Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty
Everyone’s family is complicated, but Anderson Cooper’s family is really complicated. He’s a descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who became a railroad and shipping tycoon and the wealthiest man in America. But this isn’t a glowing portrait of success and accomplishment — Cooper and co-author Katherine Howe examine the excesses of extreme wealth and their dynasty’s decline, while also telling a family story of multiple generations of Vanderbilts, including Cooper himself.
Schulz and Peanuts
Everyone knows Peanuts, and most people know Charlie Brown is an extension of Charles Schulz himself. But how much do you actually know about the artist himself? David Michaelis, who has also written about Eleanor Roosevelt and NC Wyeth, takes an in-depth look at Schulz’s personal life, punctuated with strips from the “Peanuts” comics relevant to that passage of the biography. Schulz was an unhappy man who nonetheless brought tons of joy to generations with Lucy, Snoopy, Linus and of course, Charlie Brown.
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre
Love spy thrillers? How about one about a real person? Ursula Kuczynski was a spy for the Soviet Union, spying on the Nazis in the Second World War and then the West during the Cold War. She was consistently underestimated by male adversaries, making her an even more skilled agent. While she was an agent for the bloodthirsty Stalin regime, she was also a mother and housewife.