The best biography books give us a satisfying glimpse into a great person’s life, while also teaching us about the context in which that person lived. Nothing tells us more about how to be alive now than learning from those who have gone before. And nothing captures their triumphs and disasters better than a book. Ask any entrepreneur or a rock star employee. They have one thing in common. They read biographies of people who have walked before us and were kind enough to share their lives through books.
But why read biographies?
Because all the lessons you can’t learn only by your life experience. You need to get some experience second-hand. And these people who have written/helped writing these books on their lives want to share what they have learned along the way. Our job is to pick up the lessons and apply them.
Through biography, we can also learn history, psychology, sociology, politics, philosophy, and more. Reading a great biography is both fun and educational. What’s not to love?
Below I’ve listed 50 of the best biography books you must read. You will find a mix of subjects, including important figures in literature, science, politics, history, art, and more.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly is a book not only about strong women but more. It is a book about society, struggles, overcoming prejudices, spirit, strong will, and brains. This is a history lesson for all of us not to repeat mistakes. This book follows a handful of smart and tough women as they work their way through a society rigged against them in every way until they get a small break and they let their brilliance shine.
The book starts at the time of WWII, continues with the cold war, space race, civil rights movement, and brings the untold stories of everyday heroes into daylight. I didn’t know about Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, who carried US to new fronts and heights, until I read the book. I recommend this book to everyone, especially young girls, so that they can understand their importance and acclaim their own power.
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
The subtitle of The Professor and the Madman is all the synopsis you need: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
James Murray is the professor, a learned man who became the editor of the OED. Dr William C Minor is the madman, an American Civil-War veteran and surgeon. His paranoid delusions caused him to commit murder; and resulted in his life-long commitment to an asylum for the criminally insane.
Simon Winchester crafts a compelling non-fiction narrative. This is a much shorter book compared to other biography books. Though it’s clear that Winchester did significant research and he includes details of how the OED was conceived; and the laborious efforts to get volunteers to submit citations to support word usage definitions. He never lost the story arc of these two remarkable men. He captured my attention on page one and held it throughout.
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
Antonia Fraser is one of the most well-known historical biographers out there, and this is another of her thoroughly researched books. Each wife is given attention, but especially Catherine of Aragon, who was married to Henry for 24 years before he tossed her aside for Anne Boleyn.
Fraser goes into each of the women’s rise and fall from affection of Henry VIII, and how the women related to one another. Catherine of Aragon is portrayed as the most sympathetic of the wives, a woman who was devoted to Henry and could never understand what happened to make his feelings for her change. Anne Boleyn was well-educated and ambitious, giving birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I before losing her head. Jane Seymour was mild and giving, and birthed Henry’s only surviving son.
Anne of Cleves managed to avoid following in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn, but Katherine Howard, rather naive to the ways of Henry’s court (but not to the bedroom), went the way of Anne Boleyn. Catherine Parr was plotted against, but luckily managed to outlive her king.
John Adams by David McCullough
McCullough’s biography deserves all the accolades. It is written with depth and with passion. More than just a history, this is a penetrating look into the minds of Adams, Jefferson, family, friends and enemies that brings them and their times to life for us. This remarkable accounting of the birth of a country and how it found its early footing foreshadows the civil war and debates that still rage in America.
Contrasting the beliefs, politics and personalities of Adams and Jefferson, McCullough exquisitely illustrates the divisions and binding forces of early America that persist to this day. That the deaths of Jefferson and Adams, the pen and the voice of the Declaration of Independence, occurred only five hours apart on July 4, 1826 exactly fifty years after its proclamation is simply astonishing. One of the best biography books for every American and anyone who wants to understand America, past and present.
American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a thorough account of the life and career of J. Robert Oppenheimer written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The book follows Oppenheimer’s pivotal role as director of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bombs used in World War II. It covers Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking theoretical work on nuclear fission, his assembly of the scientific team that engineered the first atomic bomb, and his controversial collaboration with government officials during the Manhattan Project years. After the war, Oppenheimer became a vocal advocate for nuclear arms control, putting him at odds with officials and ultimately leading to the revocation of his security clearance in the famous 1954 hearings. The book, which took the authors almost 20 years to complete based on extensive research, provides unique insight into Oppenheimer as a scientist, visionary and complex human wrestling with the consequences of scientific progress. It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, highlighting its importance and literary merit.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
I’ve never felt so sad to reach the end of a book in all my life. This book is amazing and is well and truly one of the best biography books I’ve ever read! Wild Swans follows the journey of three generations of women, from the same family, through the tragic history of twentieth century China.
Wild Swans is a whirlwind story, focusing around the tragedy of China throughout much of the last century through three generations of women. The greatest havoc is wrought by Mao Zedong and his wife, particularly through his Cultural Revolution in which young people are pitched against teachers, intellectuals and artists in a highly successful attempt to divide and rule. It’s like Lord of the Flies meets real life. Read this book, especially if you don’t know much about China – it’s an education.
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff has crafted, somehow, a new angle on one of the world’s oldest great stories. By focusing on the first degree sources we have from the period (mostly from Roman scholars & historians, since Alexandria was destroyed by earthquakes), Schiff at once claims expertise but only in a context that is also accessible to the reader. At times Schiff’s explanation of the sources and the perceived motivations of their authors feels plodding, but the framing of these sources is essential to Schiff’s project.
Even with thin sourcing and scrubbed of the Orientalism and oversexualized mythologies, Cleopatra’s life story is incredible. The last quarter of the book dedicated to Rome’s war on Egypt and Cleopatra’s eventual suicide is taut storytelling, not just “classicism for amateurs.”
Reading about Einstein is felt like reading the whole universe. He was phenomenal in his studies and researches. His story is a little different than people usually imagine about him. He was pretty much involved in politics of power in the 1930s.
As we all know Walter Isaacson is a tremendous storyteller. He has done a pretty good job to provides us with depth knowledge of Einstein’s life and about his researches. His paper on the theory of relativity has paved the way for modern physics. Though the things he said are still mysterious but provided him with bigger applaud around the world.
Becoming is a memoir of a famous person, Michelle Obama, the first black First Lady in the United States who lived with her husband, President Barack Obama, and their two daughters, Malia and Sacha in the White House for eight years. During that time, alongside taking care of her family, Michelle Obama managed to accomplish four major initiatives as First Lady to help improve people’s lives and well-being.
Michelle does not pretend living in the White House was not a privilege or shy away from the associated perks. She doesn’t pretend it was always amazing and wonderful either. There were plenty of tough days with the various events happening around the world.
The pressure and scrutiny of trying to raise 2 daughters with some semblance of normalcy could also be taxing on the family of 4. Through it all, Michelle always remained committed to being the best mom to Sasha and Malia.
Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother by Sonia Nazario
Sonia Nazario presents the story of a mother who leaves her family in Honduras to enter the US illegally in order to make money for them to go to school and eat. She thinks she will only be gone a year. After many years, her son, Enrique, now 15, decides to make the extremely dangerous journey to find his mother. After several attempts and near death experiences (he was very lucky to not die), he finally is reunited with his mom. However, reunification is fraught with difficulties.
Nazario is a reporter and is extremely fair and honest in her portrayal of illegal immigrant families and the consequences that surround their decisions. She actually went to Mexico and retraced Enrique’s (and tens of thousands of other children’s) journey. Nazario treats everyone in this book with dignity and fairness, and it really made me think.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
The author sets out to do try to find the legendary Colonel Fawcett and possibly the latters mysterious city of “Z” as well. “Z” being a lost, ancient city in the heart of the Amazon. Fawcett, his son Jack and a third man were lost in the mid 1920’s on an expedition into the Amazon. Fawcett had endured trips to the jungle many times before and was legendary in this respect. When he did not return, many set out to find him and were lost.
The book details Fawcetts life, some expeditions to find him and also the author’s search for answers. It does not entice one to seek out the Amazon – the details of insects, disease, snakes, hostile Indians and starvation paint a picture that would easily do as the 8th circle of Dante’s hell. It is highly informative, very interesting and one of the best biography books.
Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
Georgiana was the great British political hostess (on the Whig side) of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as the reigning superstar of high society in England during that era. She was also a complex and fascinating character, brilliant, loving, gay, miserable, bold, and insecure. She made a strong impression on everyone she met, and wielded enormous power from a position of powerlessness. She is therefore a fascinating subject for biography.
Amanda Foreman does a good job of meeting the challenge, though occasionally Georgiana Cavendish’s complexities feel a bit more cataloged than understood. It surely didn’t help the biographer that subsequent hands censored or outright destroyed much of Georgiana’s written legacy, primarily in the form of letters.
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon
This is one of the most inspiring and the best biography books about feminism in practice that I’ve ever read. RBG is an inspiration on many levels, but a few things really stuck with me. While she remains committed to feminist ideals, she truly embodies what feminism is all about – equality of the sexes. To that end, she has worked tirelessly to confront sexism against men, and to help break down the embedded cultural barriers that often prevent men from being able to serve as equal partners in marriage and parenting. Of course, she has also weighed in on sexism against women, calling it out even today when confronted by sexism at the highest levels of our judicial system.
RBG’s marriage and partnership with her beloved husband of 56 years also provide a compelling example of what an equal partnership can look like in a marriage. Marty and RBG both made sacrifices for the sake of one another’s careers, and contributed to the running of house and family.
Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
What a wonderful personality Frida is. The big desire to live no matter what. It is amazing how painful and otherwise full of joy and passion her life is. I’m just inspired from story about one of most famous women of the 20th century.
The book itself is so informative and full of references which give more information about story. Also, so many people shared their memories about Frida in one place. Like a puzzle of her life through other people lips. That’s just amazing!
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
In Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer makes the basic facts of Christopher McCandless’s trek into the Alaskan wilderness and his death nearly 4 months later clear from the outset. Even though I’d heard a lot about this case, that’s just the beginning of the story. His motivations, especially since graduating college a year earlier, are what make this story interesting.
As some of McCandless’s ideas about living a new kind of life off the map come into focus, Krakauer continues to highlight the harsh realities McCandless chose to face. While what McCandless was trying to do might be appealing to some, Krakauer reminds readers that McCandless was ill-prepared for the dangers.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
The life of George Washington is not the stoic, myth-laden journey most people have fixed in their minds. As revealed in Ron Chernow’s excellent biography, the stoic man in paintings hid an emotional complex man who went from being a loyal British subject for the first two-thirds of his life to the individual who brought a new nation into being over nearly a quarter century.
Chernow beings by putting Washington not only into the context of his times, colonial Virginia, but also into the family dynamic he grew up and developed in. The first son of his father’s second marriage, Washington’s father died young like many of his forbearers leaving a void in his life that he filled with his oldest half-brother Lawrence. It was his brother’s service in the Royal Naval that would direct Washington to desire military success when he was a young man. However, Washington would lose his brother at an early age in a string of emotionally sting but ultimately fortuitous deaths that shaped his life.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
Malcolm X was a complex and extraordinary man. Reading this one of the best biography books took me longer to read than most books and I found myself having to take breaks and read other things during the process. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the book but that it was so heavy with information and detail about the evolution of this man that I couldn’t absorb it without pausing.
What I found remarkable was learning about Malcolm’s place on the world stage. Had he chosen to stay abroad (and remained alive)I believe he would have made a big difference in the Pan African Movement. He was though a tragic character in the true Shakespearean sense and the strengths and weaknesses that made him so remarkable marked him for his assassination.
This is a inspiring and educational read. It’s one of those books that you gasp out load while reading it as the horrors of war really come to the forefront in this book. This is a story of five parts and I really enjoyed the first three parts. Part one deals with the protagonist Louis Zamperini’s childhood and running career and I really enjoyed this introduction to Louis as I felt I really understood this man and knew how he survived the horrors of war and the physiological and physical pain he endured.
This is a book where you really see the full horrors of war on all sides and what these soldiers and their families went through and the strength and courage they showed. A tale of unbelievable endurance, hardship and heroism this book is not only an education but a wonderful read and one of the best biography books that you ponder long after you have read it.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a very powerful and informative story. Also, with the history of personal freedoms, civil rights, and right to privacy/requiring consent, this is a very important and one of the best biography books.
Henrietta Lacks is a woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. The cells cut from her body, because of their aptitude for growth and replication, still play a significant role in treating disease and other medical tests. She did not know her cells were being used, and her family did not benefit financially. The author writes extensively about her family, as they were a crucial source for the book. Because of so many trust relationships violated over the years, she had to first work to build trust and prove herself reliable. She went on to establish a trust for the family.
This book discusses science, both the present state of medicine while Henrietta was being treated for cervical cancer (nothing short of radium tube inserts and lead!) and how science has grown in its understandings and treatments because of her cells.
I have been strangely and inexplicably fascinated with Steve Jobs for many years. Fascinated enough to make this book the only biography I have ever re-read. 2004 it was when Steve Jobs asked Water Isaacson to go on a walk with him. He later found out that this was his preferred way of having a serious conversation – a conversation about putting his life into words. And so this became the only authorized biography of the co-founder and visionary of Apple.
And still Isaacson didn’t sugar-coat Jobs’ personality. He did have proper rude-moments and definitely wasn’t modest or humble in his nature. He could be cruel to friends and foes alike and often didn’t give his peers enough credit. He wasn’t perfect and Isaacson doesn’t make him seem like he was, which made this a really engaging and fast-paced and one of the best biography books everyone must read.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air is one of the most beautifully written, heartbreaking, affecting and best biography books I have ever read. Even though the book is incredibly sad, it is ultimately life affirming and worth the emotional investment.
At the age of thirty-six, Paul Kalanthi, a doctor nearing the completion of his neurosurgeon training, is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. This revelation becomes a dividing line in his life, something of a reversal of fortune. Paul goes from being a healthy physician with limitless possibility ahead of him to a sick patient with an uncertain future.
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
This is probably the best biography books about climbing I have read despite the controversy surrounding some aspects. It was as enthralling as books like Endurance and as readable. I was with the author on the mountain and felt the terrible pain of the losses they endured, the guilt of the survivors and the many “what ifs” after the event.
The author relays his personal experiences climbing Everest in 1996 with a number of groups. This was the tragic year when many of the participants didn’t make it off the mountain due to a catalog of errors and an untimely snow storm. He also documents a lot of the history of other climbs and delves into the personalities and characters of some of the great climbers.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder
This stunningly good book is authored by a world-class trader who, when he loses a friend to imprisonment, torture, and death from Putin’s regime, goes all-out–slowly, deliberately–to avenge his friend. The trader is Bill Browder, the friend is Sergei Magnitsky, and the story is a true one. This makes the book more compelling than even the best fictional thriller. Putin’s lack of conscience is no act, yet Browder describes a president and a now-secretary of state who naively want to pursue a reset with this coldest of killers.
Red Notice is a story of brave men and women acting honorably in a shifting, lawless country. It provides phenomenal insight into current-day Russia.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
This is a bit more than the story of the 1936 Olympic crew challenge by the team from the University of Washington. Using one of the crew members as the focus, it combines his personal experience against the backdrop of the important historical events of that era (the 1929 stock market crash and resultant depression, the dust bowls, the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, etc.). It made for a richer story with the added context.
While the backgrounds and histories of the other members of the 9-man crew team were also provided, Joe Rantz’s story was the main focus. His was symbolic of the boys who became men even before they started college given the challenges of that time. By the time I got to the actual Olympic race, I felt these men had already reached heroic heights, especially Joe.
Edward Herrmann was fantastic as the narrator. He brought each character to life and his calling of the Olympic race was just outstanding and made this one of the best biography books.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Bryson tells the story of his hiking up the Appalachian Trail (AT for short) with his friend, Stephen Katz. His friend is quite a character, and I sort of wonder if he is a real person, or if he is “invented”. But–Katz is such a wonderful character, he is probably real, because “inventing” him would be nearly impossible. He is a recovering alcoholic, overweight sort of slob who throws out his irreplaceable supplies when the going gets tough. It seemed like a disaster in the making, but somehow Bryson and Katz survived.
Bryson’s prose is just a delight. He interleaves humorous anecdotes with tangents about history, the environment, bears, wildlife, and other interesting tidbits.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
With all the recent protests across the nation, sparked by the high-profile deaths of several unarmed men, this is an incredibly timely read and one of the best biography books.
This book is an account of the author, Bryan Stevenson, and his life calling. Stevenson first began helping death row prisoners, mostly black, who had had no legal defense of any kind. He discovered there were thousands who were completely innocent. This led him to start an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) which is still going strong to this day. Throughout this book, the focus is on race and property, children in prison, mass incarceration, and the death penalty.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
People do not fall into the category of ‘great’ by chance or triviality. Ben Franklin worked to improve himself, his community, and the lives of those with whom he shared his existence. He set an example of honesty, hard work, sobriety, fair dealing, and generosity that has been a light on the path of millions. His example seems to me exactly what is needed today.
Reading this book was a joy. This is one of the best biography books, interesting to read about those times Benjamin Franklin was grown.
My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi
There are many books written on Gandhiji, but this one is self-revealing and fascinating to read and one of the best biography books ever written. The autobiography is full of surprises: At one point in his youth, Gandhiji became convinced that India was behind the times because of vegetarianism, so he vowed to convert all of his homeland to carnivorous wisdom. Perhaps the only vow he did not keep.
Would that his teachings on non-violent resistance (satyagraha) were more widely applied. Detractors argue, however, that this strategy could really work only in India, where it appeals to such deeply ingrained cultural foundations as Patanjali’s ahimsa (non-violence), itself a Hindu appropriation of a Jainist principle.
If, for a just cause, one goes on a hunger strike in India, one is appealing to a long tradition of fasting associated with saintliness and right action. In some other cultures, where those associations do not exist, nobody would much notice or care.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance is one of my all-time favorite biographies of an engineering genius. This is a brilliantly written and one of the best biography books that masterfully captures the genius behind PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity. Award-winning feature writer, Ashlee Vance provides the public with a certifiable gem.
A well-done business biography with direct access to Musk that depicts him as a “force of nature” maniacally focused on solving acute energy resource problems and making the human species interplanetary. The incredible success of Musk, however, has not come without ongoing personal sacrifice, and the book is not simple hagiography – it touches on the cost of this focus to work relations and personal relations (his marriages and children). What makes Musk unique as a human being, and such a fascinating subject, is the level of pain he is willing absorb in order to achieve his goals.
This is obviously a very hilarious book with Tina Fey’s sense of humour hidden between the lines. Sometimes it can be hard to translate humour into written form, but that’s not the case with this book.
Tina Fey’s stories about growing up as the lucky daughter of the always stylish Don Fey, made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. Her adventures in dating are both entertaining and sad at the same time. I can’t believe someone as awesome as Tina Fey ever had a hard time attracting the opposite sex.
A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
In A beautiful mind it tells a story about Mr. Nash. He is like all of the other kids when he was younger. The book is a time line of his life. As the story proceeds, you will get pulled into his world. There are some of problems in his life that he will have to face or go through. He also, triumphs his old fears of his school and his friends.
Towards the middle of the story; Like everyone in the story, Mr.Nash goes through some changes. He also,meets some new people that shares his interest in his studying; which is mathematics. Mr.Nash works in a ivy-league school as a teacher. Through his teaching years, he becomes accustomed to working all the time. Which leads to this “gift” he receives later in the story.
The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel
This is the best biography books I have ever read. The author’s writing was brilliant. He evoked the characters of Ramanujan and Hardy, and the feeling of India and England and their relationship at that time. He provided a sense of World War I, and some of the importance of Ramanujan for India and the rest of the world during his lifetime as well as after his death.
The depth he achieved in this biography is an uncommon accomplishment. In addition, it is difficult to provide a sense of the mathematics involved without the reader being a mathematician, and yet again this was provided. Finally, Mr. Kanigel’s analysis at the end was a step above most writers, if not several steps. Very nicely done. I highly recommend this work; it is a gem.
This is a very well researched and wonderfully written biography of two great mathematicians S.Ramanujan and G.H.Hardy. The author goes into a lot of details about Ramanujan’s early life and his struggles in south India and after his “discovery” by hardy, the author goes into the aspects of his life in Cambridge.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Alexander Hamilton had a way with words, as does Ron Chernow. While Hamilton is a brick of a book, it was an interesting, thorough look at the life of a Founding Father: his upbringing, his challenges – both personal and professional, his accomplishments, of course, his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, and his lasting impact on the foundation of today’s nation.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
This is one of the best biography books and it chronicles Mandela’s life, first as the son of a tribal chief, then as an educated Black man under Apartheid–a dangerous thing to be–and then the journey, both outward and inward, from attorney to the leader of a revolution. You will read about his time on Riecher’s Island, the notorious prison, and the various experiences he had in the courtroom and in captivity.
He tells of the cunning ways those who were jailed for political reasons created to communicate and to an extent, continue to lead from inside prison. And he breaks up the horror with an occasional vignette of a surprisingly kindly jailor or other authority figure who does small, decent things when no one is looking.
Tara Westover is the child of a religious fanatic, someone who sees the government as pure evil. And by government, he means schools, hospitals, vaccines, seat belts, car insurance, etc. Everything we think of as civilization. His family awaits the Days of Abomination. There is a similarity here to The Glass Castle. Once again, we see how a mentally unbalanced father holds sway over an entire family. He thinks he speaks for God. Tara struggles with the knowledge that for her to go to school will mean a total separation from her father because he will never acknowledge that his ideas are not the correct ones.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
The title of this collection comes from a tale that took place early in Feynman’s career where he was invited for an afternoon tea with the dean of his university. The dean’s wife is serving and asks him the above question. Richard never drinks tea and never moves in the same society that does, little own the society that has lemon OR cream with it.
A big theme of these stories and indeed a running theme in Feynman’s life is that he had no time for formalisms, rituals or societal views. He does attribute a lot of this to his upbringing. His father was a uniform maker and often dealt with clients of all types of notoriety and he knew that underneath all those uniforms were just another naked ape. He passed on his views to his children and Richard went so far as to nearly not accept his Nobel Prize.