35 great biographies I’ve reviewed

great biographies - The Devil's Chessboard - David Talbot

Did the New York Times and the Washington Post choose not to review this explosive and important book because it exposes their role in suppressing major news stories?

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 35 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 35 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


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

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


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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Mal Warwick