One of the very best ways to gain insight into history and the ways of the world around us is to read biographies. Which explains why I read them so frequently. Over the more than six years since I began writing this blog, I’ve read dozens. Here I’m listing 27 that stand out in my mind.
The 27 books below are arranged in no particularly order. You’ll see, too, that they cover a lot of territory. However, apart from Stacy Schiff’s biography of Queen Cleopatra and Robert Massie’s celebrated work on Catherine the Great, they’re all set in the 19th and 20th centuries. I occasionally read history set far in the past, but I’m far more interested in the modern era that began with the Industrial Revolution.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles
T. J. Stiles won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this outstanding biography of one of the seminal figures in American economic history. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the model for the generation of capitalists who came to be known as Robber Barons.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf
The amazing story of a 19th century superstar, little remembered today, who was regarded as a genius by Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders of Western civilization during and after his lifetime. This is the man who first laid down the principles of ecology — more than 200 years ago.
The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman
If any one person was most responsible for today’s divisive politics in America — and for the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump — it’s Roger Ailes. As the longtime chairman of Fox News, Ailes steadily made Right-Wing extremism ever more respectable. We’re all paying the price for that now and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.
Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs
Few Americans today can imagine the abject fear that stalked summertime America when polio epidemics were an annual occurrence. Jonas Salk solved the problem. Often shunned by his fellow scientists, Salk was a true pioneer. He ignored the limitations of medical science as it was known in his day to fashion drug trials that gave us the first (and safest) polio vaccine.
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
Hollywood’s portrayals of Queen Cleopatra bore little resemblance to the reality, as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this extraordinary original biography. More historiography than simple history, Schiff examines how the legend of Cleopatra grew over the centuries — and was steadily distorted in the process.
Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye
John F. Kennedy’s younger brother was showing the potential to eclipse him when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on his path to the White House. Apart from the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Bobby Kennedy played a significant role at the side of his brother, and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon, it’s difficult to point to much in JFK’s presidency that history will regard as truly significant. Bobby seemed prepared to do much more.
America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson
Social change movements don’t start by themselves. Someone leads them. And often that person is what today we call a community organizer. Cesar Chavez was one such man, and this excellent biography is about the gifted teacher who taught him the tricks of the trade.
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles
This surprising biography of the Civil War hero and famous failure won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. As Stiles makes clear, the jealousy of Custer’s fellow officers was probably in large part responsible for the general’s defeat at the Little Big Horn.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable
Though mainstream society shunned him as a criminal, most African-Americans in his time looked on Malcolm X as a hero. Along with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm must be considered one of the most significant figures in recent American history.
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber
The real-life Karl Marx was very different from the caricature created by Lenin, Stalin, and their minions. He was, in fact, a man of his time and not really a revolutionary in the manner of Lenin, much less Stalin or Mao.
Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik
Today we take for granted that scientific advancement comes from huge, well-funded teams, not solitary individuals laboring away in white coats. This biography of the remarkable atomic physicist Ernest Lawrence tells the story of how Big Science came to be — and how he was a central figure in its creation.
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough
Few of us know any more about the Wright Brothers than the image lingering in our minds of that flimsy biplane lifting off the dunes at Kitty Hawk. Here, the prize-winning biographer David McCullough tells their remarkable story. What’s especially interesting are the years after Kitty Hawk, when the brothers became world famous.
Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli
David McCullough’s intimate biography of Steve Jobs grabbed the headlines, and it was beautifully done, as is all of McCullough’s work. But this later entry from two journalists who followed Jobs closely for many years gives a far more accurate and balanced picture of the man and his life. He was even more complex than we knew.
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw
In his time, Joe Kennedy was considered by some (especially himself) as a possible contender for the Presidency. When his hopes were frustrated, he transferred his ambitions to his sons. This is the insightful story of a remarkable man who established one of the most important families of 20th-Century America.
Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell
In his own time, Clarence Darrow was one of the most famous men in America. As an attorney — the country’s leading attorney — for unpopular people and causes, he was probably loathed at least as widely as he was loved. But no one would ever have dreamed of dismissing him as inconsequential.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie
Among the Tsars of Russia, only Peter the Great can be considered as a peer to the Prussian woman who married an heir to the throne and came to be called Catherine the Great when she succeeded her husband after a few years. Catherine ruled over the country for 34 years, expanding its borders and modernizing its institutions along Western European lines.
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre
Espionage is, of course, a risky business. Few spies manage to operate undiscovered for more than a few years. Those who gain access to secrets at the highest level tend to be in even greater jeopardy. Kim Philby was a rare exception. For three decades, he worked undercover in the UK as a spy for the Soviet Union inside the British intelligence establishment. Even after his English colleagues became convinced he was a spy and isolated him from access to sensitive information, the CIA continued to defend him.
American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, by Alex Beam
In its own time, and into the present day, the Church of Latter-Day Saints was one of the world’s fastest-growing religions. For decades, the religion founded early in the 19th century by an uneducated young man in Upstate New York defended the practice of polygamy, a practice which the founder himself indulged in to an extreme degree. Eventually, the Mormon church abandoned its defense of plural marriage, but the mystifying fantasy at the heart of the beliefs expounded by Joseph Smith nearly two centuries ago live on.
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk
Much of what the public knows about poverty in the Global South comes from the work of an American economist who gained fame at an early age working a “miracle” in Bolivia. Unfortunately, there were no miracles to follow in any of his work over the following three decades. As Nina Munk makes clear through diligent research, Jeffrey Sachs is no miracle-maker, and the path he described out of poverty is a dead end.
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Geffen
A Russian-American journalist unmasks the former KGB agent who has set out to reconstruct the Soviet empire and is now aggressively taking on the world. His intervention in Syria and his meddling in the 2016 American elections are just two of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to work his way on the world. And, by the way, he’s stolen enough to amass a personal fortune of $40 billion. While Putin and his cronies have become absurdly rich, the Russian economy is in a shambles.
The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro
Robert Caro is one of America’s most celebrated political biographers. Though not without its critics, his multi-volume portrait of Lyndon Johnson is widely regarded to be one of the best presidential biographies ever written — and it’s yet to be finished. The Passage of Power is the fourth volume, and it brings Johnson’s story only up to 1964, when he was elected in his own right to the White House.
And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields
Like so many clowns, Kurt Vonnegut lived a sad life. His satirical take-downs of war, corporations, and life in mid-century America in his books were sometimes hilarious. But it doesn’t appear that the man laughed a lot. And even though for many years Vonnegut was regarded as one of America’s most important writers, it remains to be seen whether that reputation can endure much longer.
The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, by Thomas Blass
Any educated person in America today is likely to be familiar with two of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in social psychology. One was the “obedience” experiment, in which he proved that Yale undergraduates could be persuaded to induce extreme, and even life-threatening, pain on others simply because they were told to do so. The other was the “small world” experiment, in which Milgram proved that we are separated from one another by no more than “six degrees of separation.”
Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor to the CIA, was responsible for much of the partisan activity behind Nazi lines in Europe. Though later evidence suggests it was only marginally helpful to the war effort, Donovan and his work had the confidence of FDR and became world famous.
The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer
The historical record is shocking enough: the future Secretary of State and future CIA director helped steer Wall Street capital and American business to Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. The older brother, Foster, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with his diplomatic brinksmanship. The younger, Allen, first helped Nazi war criminals escape to the US and South America after World War II, sometimes with the fortunes they plundered. Later, he led US efforts to assassinate heads of government in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, and probably many others. Yet, as David Talbot showed in his later book (listed just below), even worse was to come.
The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot
Digging much more deeply into the historical record, including interviews with contemporaries of Dulles and recently opened secret files, San Francisco investigative journalist David Talbot paints a much darker and more credible picture of Allen Dulles than Kinzer did in The Brothers. Even after JFK fired him as CIA Director, Dulles continued to meddle in political affairs at the highest level — with catastrophic consequences.
The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, by Rich Cohen
The astounding-but-true tale of how a penniless Eastern European immigrant founded the United Fruit Company, helped engineer the murder of the President of Guatemala, and became one of the richest men in the world. It was Samuel Zemurray whose efforts shaped the history several of what came to be called “banana republics.”