40 great biographies I’ve reviewed

Great biographies: The Devil's Chessboard by David TalbotI’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.


Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

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

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, by Thomas Blass


The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success by Tracy Kidder

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

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

American history

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case that Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson

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 

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw

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

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles, by Les Standiford

American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, by Alex Beam


The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

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 Warby Stephen Kinzer

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

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

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