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.