Biographies are stories of a person’s life written by someone who has thoroughly researched that individual.
This genre offers a great opportunity to learn about important figures, study the time period they lived in, and even understand more about the human condition.
When you’re choosing a biography to read, consider the people you admire, as well as the individuals you’d like to better understand.
What Are the Best Biographies to Read?
We’ve compiled a list of the best biographies to add to your reading list, featuring the life stories of people from all walks of life.
A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
The award-winning film A Beautiful Mind took its inspiration and content from this biography of John Nash, a well-renowned mathematician.
Nasar expertly follows Nash’s career, starting from MIT to his work at RAND Corporation. She also explores his battle against schizophrenia, a disorder that deeply challenged his life.
Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt by George Grant
This biography of former US president Theodore Roosevelt is divided into three parts: the first follows major events in his life in chronological order; the second focuses on the values he held most important; and the third includes famous quotes from the great leader.
Because Grant highlights Roosevelt’s commitment to family and children, Carry a Big Stick will challenge you to prioritize the important things in life.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Massie follows the journey of this obscure German princess from a minor noble family role to empress of Russia.
She led the government, cultural development, and foreign policy of Russia for 34 years, facing foreign wars, domestic rebellion, and unmatched levels of violence and political change.
The author vividly brings many of Catherine’s family members and friends, enemies, and lovers to life in this fascinating narrative.
Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity by Robert Cwiklik
Robert Cwiklik writes about the life of Albert Einstein with a flair that will enchant both adults and children. He explores Einstein’s childhood and school experiences, luring readers into the emotional struggles that the young boy experienced.
Tracing his journey through college and adulthood, the book gives a good insight into the thought processes of this genius known for his unruly hair and ragged outfits.
Never Give In: The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill by Stephen Mansfield
Stephen Mansfield expertly portrays the life and works of respected historian Winston Churchill. With Churchill being among the few who called out the potential darkness in Adolf Hitler’s plans, Mansfield masterfully crafts the narrative behind the man’s thought processes.
The author traces Churchill’s difficult childhood of being unwanted by his father and needing to self-teach in order to advance in life.
Readers will learn how Churchill managed to beat the odds and rise to a position of influence that he wielded with unmatched skill and tenacity.
John Adams by David McCullough
Master historian David McCullough was probably the best person to write this riveting biography of America’s founding father. John Adams, who also became the second president of the United States, is a great inspiration to many young Americans.
McCullough reveals the man of brilliance through his powerful writing in this epic biography. Adams is known for not holding back when it came to his desire for the American Revolution, but he also kept his country from an unnecessary war.
This biography includes insights into politics, social issues, and war, as well as love, faith, friendship, and even betrayal.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow offers readers a look into the life of another primary figure in American history, Alexander Hamilton. This book is the first full-length biography on the man who helped shape America in its youngest years.
With Hamilton being one of the most controversial and misunderstood figures in American history, Chernow sets out to clear the facts about this man.
He presents the direct results of Hamilton’s unrelenting efforts to push his ideas, many of which were disputed greatly during his time.
The book starts with Hamilton’s childhood years as an illegitimate orphan who had much to learn on his own. Hailing from the Caribbean, he grew up to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the army.
Chernow shows Hamilton’s passion for patriotism, as well as his steady desire to build foundations for America’s growth and prosperity.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Former Time editor Walter Isaacson wrote this extraordinary biography of the legendary Steve Jobs through a series of more than 40 interviews that took place over two years.
Isaacson also took the time to interview more than 100 of Jobs’s family and friends, enemies and competitors, and colleagues.
The book traces the roller coaster journey of this amazing entrepreneur, highlighting his intense personality and unrivaled desire for perfection.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
Isaacson once again proves his writing prowess with this biography of one of history’s greatest artists, Leonardo da Vinci.
This book covers not only da Vinci’s great masterpieces, but also delves into the heart of a genius. He portrays the great artist as a self-confident, self-taught entrepreneur: da Vinci never stopped promoting his abilities to wealthy benefactors.
Mozart: A Life by Peter Gay
Historian and National Book Award winner Peter Gay delivers this amazing biography of the world’s greatest composer.
This story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opens with an engaging narrative that delves into the personality of this musical genius. It also unveils many of the economic and political events that impacted his life.
Gay’s biography boldly tackles some of the myths around Mozart’s life. For example, rumors circulate that he was buried in a pauper’s grave and that he was poisoned by a musical rival.
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Montefiore 2003 biography of Stalin explores what happens when leaders misuse and abuse their power. The writer boldly shows how Stalin came by his power through many violent, and even murderous, ways.
He includes several examples of how Stalin would initially reach out to others, such as fellow politicians or party members, but end up abandoning—or even eliminating them—as he pursued his own goals.
Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt candidly explores the humble beginnings of this young man from a small provincial town who would take London by storm—and in a surprisingly short period of time, William rises to become the greatest playwright for generations.
The author gives readers insight to the boy’s highly sensitive nature, allowing us to experience the things he experienced in the richness of life in the Elizabethan era.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks, known among scientists as HeLa, did not know her cells would be so pivotal in the study of medicine, but in 1951, scientists took her cells and used them to develop a vaccine for polio and for intensive gene research.
Rebecca Skloot effectively explores the issues of race, ethics, and medicine by studying the life of this virtually unknown black tobacco farmer.
Her family remains in poverty, but scientists have bought and sold her cells by the billions. This biography also challenges readers with real questions from someone directly affected by genetic research.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Many biographers have undertaken a study of Abraham Lincoln’s life, but Doris Kearns Goodwin’s original take on Lincoln’s prowess in politics gives this biography a distinctive feel.
Goodwin traces Lincoln’s journey from congressman and prairie lawyer to his surprising rise over three great rivals in the national arena, as he became president of the United States. She delves into Lincoln’s character, which the author believes is key to his success.
Goodwin also honors Lincoln’s ability to empathize with others and feel compassion for their needs and desires, an important element in his ability to bring dissatisfied opponents to unity.
Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon
Celebrated public figure Norman Mailer was a journalist, novelist, filmmaker and biographer, and in this biography, J. Michael Lennon effectively captures the ambition that drove this man.
Mailer dreamed not only of being one of the greatest writers in his generation, but to reach fame enough to rival Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
Lennon describes Mailer, who prided himself as a novelist, as a gifted journalist who used his writing talent to dig into the American psyche. His 35 years of acquaintance with Mailer gave him an unusual look into the life of this driven man.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Jon Meacham wrote a remarkable biography of Andrew Jackson, the man often credited with creating the “modern” presidency.
The orphaned Jackson rose from nothing, fighting his way to the heights of power and inspiring the nation to embrace democracy.
In 1828, Jackson’s election paved the way for a new era wherein the people, instead of the elite group, guided American politics.
Meacham uses newly discovered family letters and documents to detail the drama that affected the family and Jackson’s inner circle of advisers.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
Laura Ingalls Wilder is best known for her Little House on the Prairie series of children’s historical novels. In Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser takes a deeper look into the true story of Wilder’s life.
Using a collection of letters, unpublished manuscripts, diaries, and legal documents, Fraser crafts a masterpiece biography. She explores the details of Wilder’s real life struggle with poverty, hinted at in the Little House books.
Fraser also deals with the difficult relationship between Wilder and her journalist daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and addresses questions of ghostwriting that have surrounded her books.
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
Generations ago, Professor James Murray led a team in the daunting task of collecting definitions to create the Oxford English Dictionary.
A man named Dr. W.C. Minor surprised the team by submitting more than 10,000 entries, but further astounded them when they learned that Minor was housed in an asylum for the criminally insane.
Simon Winchester shares the excellently researched life of two men driven by their obsessions, which led to the greatest contribution to American literary history.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
Michael Finkel traces the journey of Christopher Knight, a shy 20-year-old who left his Massachusetts home back in 1986. After driving into Maine, Knight disappeared into the forest and did not meet another human being for the next thirty years.
The author conducted countless interviews with Knight in order to craft this detailed biography, exploring his motives and experiences.
His first foray back into civilization involved stealing food for survival, so Finkel also delves into these issues as he studied the life of the hermit.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand introduces us to Louis Zamperini, a stubborn delinquent boy who grew into an Olympic runner.
But World War II changes the trajectory of his life, with Zamperini becoming an airman and crashing into the Pacific Ocean one fateful day in May, 1943.
From a struggle in the open ocean, battling starvation and leaping sharks, Zamperini would show resourcefulness and resilience in the midst of hopelessness. Unbroken will inspire you to keep going despite the challenges of life.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
British explorer Percy Fawcett became a legend when he went into the Amazon jungles in 1925 to search for a fabled civilization and never came back.
Expert journalist David Crann shares this narrative of Fawcett’s desire to find “The Lost City of Z,” where countless others likewise perished in their search for Fawcett and his party.
Through this book, he also unveils one of the greatest mysteries in 20th century exploration.
King of the World by David Remnick
When boxing legend Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, stepped into the boxing ring in 1964, face to face with Sonny Liston, nobody knew he would emerge as the new world champion for heavyweight boxing.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick, who also wrote Lenin’s Tomb, expertly captures the life of Ali, including all the drama that surrounds the life of this black man who ended up transforming America’s politics around race and culture.
He follows Ali’s matches throughout his career, giving us a glimpse into the courage, grace, speed, and humor of one of the world’s greatest athletes.
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
The Chinese Cultural Revolution sent ripple effects across the world, but few know the life story of this enigmatic Chinese leader.
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday spent a decade researching and interviewing Mao Zedong’s circle of friends and family in China—a group that has remained largely mum over the years.
This provides this authoritative biography with telltale details, such as what really drove Mao, insight into his relationship with Stalin, and how he resorted to tricks and blackmail to achieve his goals.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Remarkably attractive Rosemary, daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy, enjoyed attending exclusive schools and was even presented to the Queen of England as a debutante. But the family guarded an important secret: the girl was intellectually disabled.
Kate Clifford Larson compassionately unveils this much adored girl, piecing information together from Rose Kennedy’s correspondence and letters, doctors’ and school letters, plus interviews with the family.
The author shares the sensitive care Rosemary’s parents gave to her, but also deals with the complexity the family had to face with their rising fame and Rosemary’s limitations.
25. Of Courage Undaunted: Across the Continent with Lewis and Clark by James Daugherty
This unique rendering of the adventures of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark comes to life with James Daugherty’s prowess as both a Newbery and Caldecott Medal winner. The book excellently traces the expedition extending from St. Louis to the West.
Drawing from original records of the expedition, the biography shows us a clear look at the challenges Lewis and Clark faced in the wilderness, including the possibility of attack from Native Americans, sudden natural disasters, and other hardships.
What Is the Importance of Biography?
Reading a biography can transport you to the life and times of a certain person. You get to see their thought processes, experiences, how they responded to their environment, and what shaped them as an individual.
This is an excellent and often entertaining way to study history and learn from the successes and failures of others. But biographies aren’t your only option—you can also get firsthand accounts of fascinating lives in the best memoirs.
Do you have a favorite biography? Tell us about it in the comments below!