Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites

Great biographies: The Devil's Chessboard by David Talbot

I’ve read a lot of biographies since I began posting book reviews in January 2010. Dozens, actually. I’m listing here more than 50 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 50+ 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.

Although I was forced to be somewhat arbitrary, my 10 favorite great biographies appear in the first list below. Those titles are later repeated in the four categories.

Within each of the five lists, titles appear in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.

Great biographies: my 10 favorites

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

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

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

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

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

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

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

Great biographies: science

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

Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II by Jennet Conant

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox

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

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic, by Ginger Strand

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

Great biographies: business

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

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives by Jeffrey E. Garten

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

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

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

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

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance

Great biographies: American history

Pelosi, by Molly Ball

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

The Passage of Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson #4 of 5), by Robert A. Caro

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey Cowan

American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford by Roland de Wolk

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes by Adam Hochschild

Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror by Charles Lane

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner 

Great biographies: espionage

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

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

Hitler’s Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Story by Richard Bassett

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

Nancy Wake: The gripping true story of the woman who became the Gestapo’s most wanted spy by Peter FitzSimmons

King of Spies: The Dark Reign of an American Spymaster by Blaine Harden

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer

Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became World War II’s Most Highly Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis

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

An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent by Owen Matthews

The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton by Jefferson Morley

Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown by Jim Newton

Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn by James Srodes

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister

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

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

Other outstanding biographies

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China by Jung Chang—They shaped twentieth-century Chinese history

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber

For further reading

You might also be interested in 20 top nonfiction books about history plus 80 other good books and Top 20 popular books for understanding American history.

To check out all 100 of the reading lists posted here, go to Your handy guide to the grouped reviews on this site. And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

Spread The Word!