During his career, Richard Holmes said that writing about the people he tried to write about was a “kind of pursuit.” He wrote that he tried to write about these people in a way that made them “live in the present.”
As a cliché, the best biographies do just that: make their subjects come to life. A good biography isn’t just a list of things that happened to someone. It’s more than that. Instead, it should tell a story and weave a narrative in the same way that a book does. In this way, biography is different from the rest of the nonfiction books.
A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
One of John Nash’s biographies was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, but it was also the subject of an award-winning movie called “John Nash: A Life.” Nasar spends a lot of time talking about Nash’s impressive career, from his time at MIT to his work at the RAND Corporation. He also talks about the internal battle he waged against schizophrenia, which almost killed him.
Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film The Imitation Game – Updated Edition by Andrew Hodges
Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing, which came out in 1983, shows how this brilliant mathematician, cryptologist, and computer pioneer worked inside the head. Many things about Turing are revealed in this book, even though the title refers to his work during World War II. It talks about how he worked hard to break codes during the war, how he made computer designs and made contributions to mathematical biology in the years after, and how he was persecuted in the 1950s, when homosexual acts were still punishable by English law.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is not only the inspiration for a hit Broadway musical, but it is also a work of art in and of itself, as well. When it comes to Benjamin Franklin’s life, this book is a whopping 800 pages long. It covers everything from his role in the Revolutionary War and early American government to his sordid (and ultimately career-destroying) affair with Maria Reynolds. Even though he didn’t become president of the United States, he was still an interesting figure in American history. Plus, it’s fun to learn the truth behind the songs.
Are you more interested in reading about First Ladies than almost-presidents? Check out this great list of books about First Ladies on The Archive. They have a lot of them.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
In 1927, Hurston tried her hand at biographical writing with this amazing book. It was kept under lock and key until it was published in 2018. Cudjo Lewis is the last person who survived the Middle Passage slave trade. Hurston interviewed him, and this book is based on that. This biography of the “last black cargo” will take you back in time to an era that isn’t as far away from us as we think it is. It’s written in a way that makes you feel connected to African-American culture.
Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert
Though many people have tried to write a biography of Winston Churchill, Gilbert’s is the only one that can be trusted. Many people think he was the best British prime minister ever. This biography of Winston Churchill is a perfect tribute to the man who led Britain through World War II. It has a good mix of in-depth research and personal details.
E=mc²: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis
This “biography of the world’s most famous equation” is a one-of-a-kind twist on the genre. It doesn’t just tell the story of Einstein, it also tells the story of the equation itself. In this book, Bodanis makes what could be a very dry subject interesting for people of all kinds. He talks about the history and development of energy, mass, and light, as well as how they changed the world in the twentieth century.
Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario
He was only five years old when his mother left Honduras for the United States, promising to come back soon. Later, Enrique took matters into his own hands and decided to travel across Central and South America by train in order to see his mother again. He would risk his life on the “train of death” and at the hands of the immigration authorities in order to get back together with her. This story about Enrique’s dangerous journey isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s also a heartfelt story about the pain of being apart from your family.
Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
She was one of the most well-known names in modern art at the time, and Herrera’s 1983 biography of her has been called “the best account of her life ever written.” And even though Kahlo had to deal with a lot of pain (a terrible accident when she was 18, a husband who had a lot of affairs), the main point of the book is not her pain. Rather, it’s because of Herrera’s hard work that she will never be forgotten.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book about a woman whose cells changed the course of modern medicine. It’s hard to forget the life of a poor black woman whose cancer cells were taken without her permission for medical testing. Without this woman, we wouldn’t have many of the critical cures we use today.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
In April 1992, Christopher McCandless, also known as Alexander Supertramp, hitched a ride to Alaska and went missing in the Denali wilderness. McCandless was found dead in his shelter five months later. He was emaciated and had no food in his body. Krakauer’s biography of McCandless tries to figure out what the young man was looking for on his trip and whether he fully understood the risks he faced. He goes back to the beginning of the trek to try to figure that out.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families by James Agee
Famous people and our fathers who raised us should be thanked now, as well. From this line, Agee and Evans come up with the central question of their work: who deserves our praise and attention? According to this 1941 biography, the sharecropper families who were barely able to make it through the American “Dust Bowl” were the ones who were most affected. Evans and Agee beg their readers to see the humanity of hundreds of people who were living in poverty at the time.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
An interesting 2009 book about a mysterious explorer puts another one at the center. Grann tells the story of Percy Fawcett, an archaeologist who went missing in the Amazon with his son in 1925. They were supposed to be looking for an old lost city. Parallel to this story, Grann tells about his own adventures in the Amazon 80 years later. He talks about how he found out what threats Fawcett might have faced, and how he came to know what the “Lost City of Z” was.
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang
People who know the name Mao Zedong will be surprised by how much they learn about the “Red Emperor” in this book. Chang and Halliday start with the shocking fact that Mao killed 70 million people in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century world leader. This is the start of their book. From there, they dissect Mao’s complicated ideology, motivations, and missions, breaking down his long-held “hero” persona and putting forward a new, grislier image of one of China’s most important revolutionaries, which isn’t as good.