I’ve read a lot of biographies since I began posting book reviews in January 2010. Well over three dozen, actually. I’m listing here the 40 that I can recommend, omitting several that underwhelmed me (in addition to others I couldn’t finish reading).
These books cover a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures, every one of them prominent in a significant way, from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great to Clarence Darrow, Allen Dulles, and Steve Jobs.
As you can see, most of these 40 biographies fall into a few categories that describe some of the topics I’m most interested in: espionage, science, business, and American history. The categories are arbitrary: many of these books fall into more than one. However, I chose just one, not wanting to list any titles twice.
Each title below is hyperlinked to my review.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf
The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, by Ginger Strand
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance
Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough
Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye
David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, by Tom Turner
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable
One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner
Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell
The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson #4 of 5), by Robert A. Caro
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles
Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister
The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre
Other outstanding biographies
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie
And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber