4 years ago

Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites

Image of The First Tycoon, one of the great biographies reviewed here

I’ve read a lot of biographies since I began posting book reviews in January 2010. I’m listing here more than 50 that I can recommend, omitting many 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 more than 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 for each book, 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.

This post was updated on March 31, 2021.

Great biographies: my 10 favorites

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

He was a radical in the age of laissez faire. “With the land and possessions of America rapidly passing into the hands of a favored few; with thousands of men and women in idleness and want; with wages constantly tending to a lower level . . . with the knowledge that the servants of the people elected to correct abuses are bought and sold in legislative halls at the bidding of corporations and individuals; with all these notorious evils sapping the foundations of popular government and destroying personal liberty, some rude awakening must come.” That was the legendary attorney Clarence Darrow (1857-1938): champion of labor, a founding director of the NAACP and co-founder of the ACLU, “the country’s most prominent and outspoken atheist,” advocate of free love, “Jefferson’s heir—his time’s foremost champion of personal liberty,” a superstar of the Gilded Age. Read the review.

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Headlines around the world in the spring of 1955 triumphantly announced that “Polio is Defeated!” A young doctor, barely more than forty years old, had developed a safe and effective vaccine with financial support exclusively from what was popularly known as the March of Dimes. Dr. Jonas Salk become an instant global star. Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, both a physician and a biographer, has written what may be the definitive story of the man’s life. It’s an outstanding piece of work, and an eye-opener. Read the review.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

In a world awash with praise for digital pioneers such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, it’s all too easy to forget some of the extraordinary people who have shaped our world through business. We remember Thomas Edison, of course: the harnessing of electricity is impossible to overlook. But we recall Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller as much because of all the money they made as well as their accomplishments in business. Others did work that was just as consequential for our society. Wilbur and Orville Wright are certainly among them. How often do their names come up today? Read the review.

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

It’s difficult even to dip your toes into the field of poverty without tripping over the Millennium Villages Project. So extensive has been the coverage of this ambitious—some would say — that scholars may spend years sifting through the documented record. But anyone curious about the Millennium Villages need only read The Idealist, financial journalist Nina Munk’s eminently readable and extensively researched account of the Project and the extraordinarily gifted man who conceived and forced it on the world’s consciousness. Munk’s first-hand account should stand for years as the authoritative judgment on this ill-considered venture. Read the review.

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

This was the man who fathered John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, as well as two other leading candidates for the office. His life was the stuff of classical tragedy, not Shakespearean but Greek in its primal ferocity. He lost his oldest daughter to a botched lobotomy in 1941, his oldest son to a suicide mission in World War II, another daughter to a plane crash shortly afterwards, and two sons to assassination in the 1960s. Though he never held public office higher than that of SEC Chairman and Ambassador to England, he was one of the most influential people of his time, alternately revered and reviled. As much as any single person, Joe Kennedy shaped the studio system that dominated Hollywood for decades. In 1957, The New York Times named him as one of the fifteen richest men in the country, with a fortune then estimated by Forbes that was the equivalent of billions of dollars today. Read the review.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

You might expect a political memoir to offer up a smorgasbord of self-justification and score-settling. Many such autobiographical works are that and little more. But that is most assuredly not the case with Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. In this first of two planned volumes, the forty-fourth President eloquently conveys what it’s like to live in the White House and raise a family while the world lurches from one crisis to the next. What emerges, above all, is a self-portrait of a complete human being, fully in command in the most challenging job in the world and passionately committed to his family but subject to the same self-doubt as so many of us. This is the real Barack Obama—cranky at times, profane in private, but undeniably brilliant, charismatic, unfailingly generous to his staff, and always at his best when the pressure’s greatest. Read the review.

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

Becoming Steve Jobs has been enthusiastically received by the people who knew him best: those he worked with at Apple and Pixar, and his peers in Silicon Valley. By contrast, the reception in the Valley for Walter Isaacson’s much better-known (and better-selling) book was mixed at best, despite the rave reviews it received in all the right places (The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and so forth). I loved it, too. But I didn’t know the man. Schlender and Tetzeli did, and for many years before Jobs enlisted Isaacson in 2009 to write his authorized biography. Read the review.

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

As a teenager growing up in the 1950s in Lima, Ohio, (population 50,000), I learned that our local daily, The Lima News, had been purchased by a man named R. C. Hoiles. Hoiles lived in Orange County, California, and was a member of the John Birch Society. He owned a chain of small-town newspapers which he called (surprise!) Freedom Newspapers. I didn’t know any of that at the time, though. What I knew was just what I read in the News: editorials denouncing the “socialistic” concept of free public schools and paeans to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the drunken liar and bully who claimed to see Communists under every desk. Decades later, Roger Ailes built the Fox News Network to advance the same Right-Wing agenda. Read the review.

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

He was the first robber baron. Other familiar names associated with the nineteenth century—John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan—were young men in the early days of their careers when he was at the peak of his fame. Following the Civil War, he became the richest person in American history, and to this day remains the second-richest, bested only by Rockefeller. (Yes, richer by far than Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, insofar as such things can be determined.) More importantly, he was one of the original architects of the modern corporation, “consolidating” one regional railroad into another to form one of the country’s first massive, impersonal corporations. And he single-handedly restored order and stabilized the US economy in the midst of one of the most severe financial panics in our history. Read the review.

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

If you’re familiar with mid-twentieth century American history, you’ll know the name Allen Dulles (1893-1969), who served as the director of the CIA through the tense years of the Eisenhower Administration and remained in office until John F. Kennedy fired him in 1961. Now, investigative journalist David Talbot has written an eye-opening new biography of the man. Talbot has delved more deeply into the record than previous biographers and taken a far more critical look at Dulles’ career in The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. The picture that emerges is shattering. Read the review.

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

He was the most famous man in the world, and more places around the world are named after him than anyone else. To many of the giants of his time—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau—he was a colossus whose genius overshadowed their own. He was the first to describe the web of life on Earth, foreshadowing James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and the first to describe the impact of human activity on the world’s climate. His books, which read like poetry, “were so popular that people bribed booksellers to be the first to receive copies.” Eleven years after his death at age 89, the centennial of his birth was observed by hundreds of thousands of people in huge celebrations around the world. Read the review.

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

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Raceby Walter Isaacson

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 Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea by Walter R. Borneman

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

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

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 Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff

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 Warby 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

Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia

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.

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!