Reading nonfiction is a wonderful way to widen your horizons. Biographies offer a unique look at historical and influential figures. They can put famous people into a greater context or share an incredible unknown story.
This list looks to document the best of the biography genre. They cover historical figures, those who made an impact in science or the arts, and a few that are just good storytellers. Each book on the list was selected based on its literary merit as well as the importance or interest of the subject.
Here are 50 biographies everyone should read:
American Historical Biographies
John Adams by David McCullough: The second president was a brilliant man who often did not command respect from his colleagues because of his uniquely brash personality. This book chronicles his impact on American governing as well as his love story with his wife Abigail.
Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik: The title of this book comes from a Tumblr page meant to solidify Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the coolest octogenarian in America. The biography is decidedly more serious than the original social media page as it spells out the life of this influential feminist justice.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston: Based on interviews conducted in 1927 and 1931, Hurston captures the story of the last living person captured in Africa and then transported and enslaved in America. It is as relevant now as it was almost 100 years ago, as the narrative around America’s entwinement with slavery evolves.
Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams: Marshall used the justice system to push back against the legality of American racial segregation. He then became the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court. This biography also dives into his conflicts with other major civil rights leaders and his unique relationship with J. Edgar Hoover.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow: Chernow is considered one of the great American historical biographers and his account of the life of the first president. It’s a huge undertaking that required massive amounts of research and it’s a definitive look at one of the most influential early American leaders.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow: This book is best known for being the inspiration for Lin Manuel-Miranda’s broadway musical, Hamilton. The book itself is decidedly less flashy but provides insight into an influential founding father whose legacy, until recently, was defined by his untimely death.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable: Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, the son of civil rights activists who would grow up to lead a Black nationalism movement alongside concurrent civil rights campaigns. This 2011 book was also the first to document new information about Malcolm X’s assassination.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson: The daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy, Rosemary had an intellectual disability the family worked hard to hide. Once the family’s rose to prominence and it became increasingly difficult to conceal Rosemary’s disability, her father decided to have her lobotomized at age 23.
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne: This book is the biography of Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general often held in high esteem by Southerners trying to change the narrative of the Civil War. It is considered to be the best account of Jackson’s life and military career. It is important to note that some readers have criticized the fact that this book minimizes Jackson’s relationship with slavery, including the fact that he enslaved people and fought to preserve slavery.
His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham: John Lewis was born on a farm in rural Alabama and became a Civil Rights icon. He went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives for many years. This would be an excellent choice to read in 2020 as many reflect upon Lewis’s legacy after his death this year.
The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro: This is a four-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson, who was a complex man thrust into the presidency after the assassination of JFK. Johnson’s legacy includes important civil rights legislation, but his life was also defined by his singular ambition to make a mark on America.
The Real Lincoln by Thomas J. Dilorenzo: This biography of a man many consider to be the greatest American president looks to change the narrative about Abraham Lincoln. Instead of painting Lincoln as “the Great Emancipator,” Dilorenzo argues that Lincoln’s motivation for engaging in the Civil War had more to do with his desire to move toward a centralized government. The author’s perspective is not without controversy, so read this biography if you want to consider a unique view of history.
Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster by Stephen L. Carter: The provocative title of this book captures the exciting story of Eunice Hunton Carter. Hunton Carter defied racial and gender barriers to take down Lucky Luciano, New York’s infamous Mafia boss. Fun fact: She’s also the grandmother of the author.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans: In 1936, this reporter-photographer team traveled through the American South to document the lives of sharecroppers during the Great Depression. It’s considered one of the best accounts of American poverty.
American Lion by Jon Meacham: This is the definitive biography of President Andrew Jackson, who simultaneously transformed American democracy while committing atrocities, like the forced removal of Native people from their tribal lands.
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser: Everyone knows the history of the king with six wives, but this book aims to tell the wives’ stories. Each of the women has their story told in this shared biography.
Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert: Many have written about the life of Winston Churchill, but historian Martin Gilbert’s work is considered to the best account of the prime minister’s life. This is a single volume edition, condensed from an earlier-published eight volumes. It also includes new information since the original publication.
Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie: This is part of a four-book series on the Romanovs. It tells the story of how a woman born to a minor German noble family became the empress of Russia. She ruled Russia for 34 years, cementing her legacy forever.
Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie: Any true Russian history buff will enjoy all of the biographies in Massie’s Romanov series, but the two included on this list are the most commonly recommended. It tells the story of the missteps of two royal leaders that eventually led to their execution in 1918.
The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom and Elizabeth and John Sherrill: This is almost an autobiography, but it’s still worthy of a place on this list. The Sherrills came up with the idea to tell Corrie ten Boom’s story and collaborated on the book. In it, ten Boom shares her experience in the Netherlands during World War II, where she helped hide Jews in her home. She was eventually caught and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp and was liberated in 1944. She lived for 39 more years.
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang: This biography is a fascinating look at the often misunderstood Mao Zedong. It’s a complete history of the Chinese leader and a great introduction for readers who know very little about him.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang: Author Jung Chang captures her own family’s experiences during the twentieth century in China. This is a great companion to Chang’s biography of Mao, but it tells the story of his reign through the eyes of three generations of women in one family.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann: In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett traveled to the Amazon jungle and disappeared. In search of a fabled “City of Z,” many have searched for any evidence of Fawcett, with no success. This book explores the mystery of his disappearance.
Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario: 11 years after his mother left to find work in the United States, Enrique leaves his home in Honduras to find her. It’s a harrowing story of danger and hostility, while also having moments of hope and great courage.
Ghengis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford: Khan is the stuff of legends to most Western readers, and this biography captures his unmatched might. Genghis Khan led the Mongol army to capture lands throughout Asia and Europe.
Science and Technology Biographies
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: This book documents the story of a poor Black farmer whose cells were used by scientists to develop vaccines and conduct medical research — all without her consent and many years after her death. Henrietta Lacks’ story illustrates the way Black Americans are used in medical research and Skloot explores the connection between bioethics and racism.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: America has long been fascinated by the Apple founder and tech genius Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson’s biography is considered the best account of his life and revolutionary career.
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder: Paul Farmer has spent his career in medicine traveling the world in hopes of bringing medical care to all people. This biography accounts for his career as a Harvard professor as well as his time abroad in places like Haiti, Peru, and Cuba.
A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar: John Nash was a mathematician who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for his work. He also suffered from mental illness and schizophrenia that almost prevented him from producing his most famous work on game theory. This biography inspired a film starring Russell Crowe.
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly: This book highlights the achievements of NASA’s “human computers,” many of whom were Black women segregated in a separate space from the white men who received credit for their work. This book inspired a popular film.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore: In this at times hard-to-read book, Kate Moore describes the terrible health effects of radium and the women who suffered them. In the early 20th century, many women were employed to paint watch faces with radioactive paint, allowing the watches to glow in the dark. But as a result of their exposure to radium, the women developed terrible illnesses. As their bodies were falling apart, the women fought for workers’ rights.
Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges: Alan Turing was a brilliant man who cracked the Nazi code machine and laid the groundwork for the computer. He was also a gay man in Britain at a time when homosexuality was outlawed. Turing was eventually arrested and forced to undergo humiliating treatment, despite his crucial role in the Allies’ World War II victory.
Radioactive: Marie and Paul Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss: In this biography of Marie Curie, readers can follow a remarkable career of scientific discovery alongside her romance with Paul. Marie Curie was a complex woman and this biography captures her life well.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand: This biography covers the life of Louis Zamperini, once a celebrated American Olympic runner who became an airman during World War II. His plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean and he drifted asea until landing at the Marshall Islands and being captured by the Japanese. Zamperini’s survival story is unlikely and inspiring.
King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick: This book is considered the most complete account of Muhammad Ali’s life and his impact on boxing and American racial politics. Ali captivated sports fans with his talent in the ring and challenged Americans to pursue racial justice.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: This is an incredible underdog story about nine working-class rowers from the University of Washington who defeated the elite crew teams from the East Coast and Great Britain. They would then shock the world by defeating the German team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian: For those who followed the rise of the young, phenomenal golfer, and then watched him lose it all due to a personal scandal, this book is for you. Published in 2018, it’s the most comprehensive and up-to-date biography of Woods. It’s especially good for those who celebrated Woods’ return to golf and his triumphant 2019 Master’s win.
True Crime and Mystery Biographies
Columbine by Dave Cullen: Though technically an account of the entire Columbine High School shooting, this book serves as a biography of the shooters themselves. Cullen was on the scene in 1999 and spent 10 years working on this book. He successfully challenges misinformation that took hold in American conversations about the shooting and is a great read for anyone who wants to finally learn the facts.
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan: In this 2020 book, Maureen Callahan tells the story of Israel Keyes, a relatively unknown serial murderer who went undetected by law enforcement for years. Keyes was evaded the FBI by hiding “kill kits” in remote locations, leaving them until he decided to return and commit his crimes. This book is great for true crime lovers.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel: Christopher Knight survived in the remote woods of Maine for almost three decades by stealing provisions from locals’ homes. He lived in a tent through the harsh Maine winters and didn’t interact with another human being during his time in the forest. Knight sought solitude and achieved it for almost 30 years until he was arrested for stealing. Then the world finally learned his story.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer: This is the story of a man who went into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 without any money or many supplies and was found dead just 4 months later. Krakauer tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a college graduate from a well-to-do family, and what drove him to enter the wild without maps or a plan.
Art, Music, and Literature Biographies
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson is considered a master of the horror genre, best known for the short story “The Lottery” and her novel-turned-Netflix-series, The Haunting of Hill House. This biography tells the story of her difficult life and the inspiration for some of her best work.
Frida by Hayden Herrera: Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has long been the subject of fascination in the art world and beyond. This biography captures her story. Kahlo suffered a life-altering accident that would inspire her to begin painting. Soon the world would be treated to her wonderful talent. It also covers her fascinating relationship and marriage to artist Diego Rivera.
Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick: The first of two volumes, this book chronicles the early life of Elvis Presley and his rise to rock-and-roll fame. It covers the first 24 years of his life, through the recordings of his first hits, his drafting into the army in 1958, and the death of his mother.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser: This book is the first definitive biography of the famed author of the Little House series. Caroline Fraser uses a variety of documents to fill in the gaps in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, providing a more complete picture of her experiences growing up on the prairie and her relationship with her only daughter Rose.
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt: William Shakespeare is the most famous writer in history. His prolific work is astonishing. How did he accomplish so much in his life? Greenblatt attempts to answer that question while humanizing the great playwright.
Prince: A Private View by Afshin Shahidi: This is a unique biography of musical genius Prince. It’s foremost a photo collection of images shot by Shahidi himself. Shahidi collaborated with Prince for much of his career. The photos and stories in this book reflect the inside access only Shahidi had.
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd: After reading Neale Hurston’s portrait of an enslaved man in Barracoon, dive into the life of the woman herself. Zora Neale Hurston was creatively connected to the Harlem Renaissance and inspired countless Black women writers, including Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford: This is the biography of an influential poet and playwright with a fascinating family life. Edna St. Vincent Millay had a close relationship with her sisters and mother, and it was at times toxic. Those unfamiliar with St. Vincent Millay will enjoy learning about this Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester: This is the unbelievable story of the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary and two men who were instrumental in its creation. Professor James Murray led the committee to oversee the collection of definitions. He was shocked to discover a man who had submitted over ten thousand definitions, Dr. W.C. Minor, was also an American Civil War veteran living in an asylum for the criminally insane.