The best biographies of all time are those that have left echoes in our collective consciousness.
Precisely because of the legacy left by the subjects of those biographies — and the biographers’ skill in sharing that legacy — we can climb to heights made accessible by the giants who came before us.
And as much as we enjoy a good memoir or autobiography, a biography written by someone other than the subject yields something the former cannot.
The perspective of someone not in the subject’s head may feel less reliable or at least less intimate.
But it’s also more likely to be objective and dispassionate.
The biographer might share things the subject would not — either from modesty, shame, or something else.
- 38 Best Biographies of All Time
- 1. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
- 2. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla by Marc J. Seifer
- 3. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
- 4. Harriet: The Moses of Her People by Sarah Hopkins Bradford
- 5. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
- 6. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
- 7. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
- 8. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
- 9. Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird
- 10. Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan
- Best Presidential Biographies
- 11. Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin
- 12. Grant by Ron Chernow
- 13. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
- 14. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
- 15. Truman by David McCullough
- 16. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt Series Book 1) by Edmund Morris
- 17. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
- 18. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- 19. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek
- Best Celebrity Biographies
- 20. Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn
- 21. Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Mark Langthorne and Matt Richards — or Mercury and Me by Jim Hutton
- 22. John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman
- 23. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
- 24. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
- 25. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? by Marion Meade
- 26. Robin, by Dave Itzkoff
- Best Biographies of Women
- 27. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- 28. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outsmarted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone
- 29. Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy’s Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
- 30. Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
- 31. Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen
- 32. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell — or The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson
- 33. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
- 34. Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen
- Why You Should Read Biographies
- What Are The Best Selling Biographies?
- 1. At My Mother’s Knee… And Other Low Joints: Tales From Paul’s Mischievous Young Years by Paul O’Grady
- 2. A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer
- 3. The Sound of Laughter: The Autobiography of Peter Kay by Peter Kay
- 4. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson
- Did you find the best biographies to read this year?
The most interesting biographies do the following:
- Make the subject more human and relatable
- Relate something surprising that most people don’t know about the subject
- Tie that surprising something to a timeless lesson we need to learn
The list that follows contains the best biography books of all time, many of which I hope you’ll consider worthy additions to your “to read” list.
38 Best Biographies of All Time
The first several listings are top biographies that have captured the imagination of readers for decades, if not centuries.
You can probably think of a few famous inventors, scientists, artists, musicians, or philosophers you’d like to know better than you do now.
Humboldt (1769-1859) was a German naturalist and the most famous scientist of his age.
2. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla by Marc J. Seifer
Seifer’s comprehensive and revelatory biography ties together the personal and professional life of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) — the man widely recognized as the founding father of modern electrical technology.
3. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
Written by the author of bestselling biographies on Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin, this book quickly became the definitive biography of Albert Einstein, the genius who questioned conventional explanations and saw wonder in the mundane.
4. Harriet: The Moses of Her People by Sarah Hopkins Bradford
Bradford’s biography introduces us to the woman who led more than 13 expeditions on the Underground Railroad to free slaves in the South.
5. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
Isaacson wrote the world’s favorite biography of “the founding father who winks at us” — leading the reader to a more intimate understanding of the inventor, scientist, diplomat, business strategist, and writer behind Poor Richard’s Almanac.
6. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
This #1 New York Times bestseller combines Isaacson’s own talent as a biographer with the life and work of a multi-talented visionary.
7. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Douglass’ voice rings loud and clear in Prophet of Freedom, an elegant, vivid and meticulously researched book by David W. Blight.
8. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
If the inventors like the Wright brothers hadn’t been as fearless as they were brilliant, the world would be a different place.
10. Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan
Edward Curtis was a charismatic photographer who worked with presidents and great thinkers before leaving it all behind and dedicating himself to documenting the stories of North American tribes.
Best Presidential Biographies
Some of the best historical biographies involve past presidents, exploring their personal lives and backgrounds to shed light on their decisions and behavior as the nation’s leaders
11. Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin
In this biography, Hill recalls his seventeen eventful years in the Secret Service.
12. Grant by Ron Chernow
Pulitzer Prize-winner Chernow wrote the definitive biography of the man Frederick Douglass called “the vigilant, firm, impartial, and wise protector of my race.”
13. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Chernow takes the reader through the life of the first president of the United States — a man too often unfairly regarded as stoic and unemotional.
14. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
15. Truman by David McCullough
16. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt Series Book 1) by Edmund Morris
This book was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time.
Morris’s biography is the #1 choice for anyone seeking to better know and understand the man whose charisma, vitality and creativity made him an “inevitable” (and lovable) commander in chief for two terms.
17. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
Joseph J. Ellis wrote this thought-provoking biography of Thomas Jefferson to give us a glimpse into the mind of one of our most enigmatic founding fathers.
18. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This biography won the Lincoln prize, having done more than many others to show Abraham Lincoln as the man he was — from his poor childhood to his ascent to the presidency, to his devastating assassination.
19. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek
Robert Dallek presents JFK as he truly was: human. flawed, brave, provocative, and endlessly interesting, Kennedy comes to life in An Unfinished Life.
Best Celebrity Biographies
Some of the most popular biographies feature celebrities of the past and present.
From musicians to actors to scientists to the new leaders of industry, the subjects of the following biographies have earned celebrity status by taking a firm hold of our attention and then not wasting it.
20. Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn
Munn’s biography honors the memory of Jimmy Stewart while showing aspects of his life and personality that few people knew.
21. Somebody to Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Mark Langthorne and Matt Richards — or Mercury and Me by Jim Hutton
With interviews by Freddie Mercury’s closest friends in the last years of his life, this authoritative biography honors the memory of a talented and spectacular showman.
22. John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman
As the authorized biographer of the Beatles, Philip Norman later wrote this book on the man for whom being a Beatle was never enough.
23. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
A veteran technology journalist, Vance wrote this biography with exclusive access to Musk, his family, and friends.
24. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Isaacson wrote this biography based on more than forty interviews with Jobs — as well as personal interviews with family, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues.
25. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? by Marion Meade
Parker’s wit paved the way for women to have careers as journalists, writers, and screenwriters.
From Parker’s complicated childhood to her inconsistent adult behavior, Marion Meade puts together an impressive biography that guides us through a life of high society, volatile relationships, and talented literary output.
26. Robin, by Dave Itzkoff
Charismatic, talented, and unpredictable, Robin Williams made a career of captivating a worldwide audience with equal measures of humor and pathos.
Best Biographies of Women
No list of great biographies would be complete without those written about women whose lives have inflamed our imaginations and challenged the status quo.
27. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
In 1951, doctors took her cells without asking and used them in lucrative and world-changing developments like the polio vaccine, cloning, and gene mapping.
28. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outsmarted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone
Fagone writes the compelling true story of the greatest codebreaking duo in U.S. history: Elizabeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William.
29. Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy’s Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
She was the hidden child of Joe and Rose Kennedy, a startling beauty with an intellectual disability.
In her early twenties, her father consented to have her lobotomized, thinking it the best way to deal with a daughter who had grown difficult to manage — a young woman who was smart enough to realize her parents were ashamed of her.
30. Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
Goldsmith uses family interviews, diaries, letters, and Curie’s own workbooks to write this bestselling life story of a brilliant scientist struggling to balance family demands, societal prejudice, and a career that would bring her worldwide fame — but at a steep cost.
31. Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen
In 1942, an airplane crashed into the side of a Nevada mountain, killing everyone on board. Among them was Hollywood’s “Queen of Screwball,” Carole Lombard — the wife of Clark Gable.
32. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell — or The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson
33. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Shetterly tells the true story of the four African American women who helped NASA put the first man in space.
While Jim Crow laws still required their separation from white mathematicians working toward the same goal, what these brilliant women accomplished weakened both gender and racial barriers — all while helping the U.S. win the space race.
34. Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen
The gruesome experiences that Audrey Hepburn had to overcome in the Netherlands during the war defined her as a person and as an actress.
Her strength of character transformed her haunting memories into compassion and courage. Tragic, yet heartening, Robert Matzen’s insightful and detailed writing brings Audrey’s noble spirit back to life.
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Why You Should Read Biographies
Consider the following excellent reasons to add biographies to your reading list:
- You get to learn from the experiences of others;
- You gain insight into how other people handle adversity or solve problems;
- You broaden your perspective on the world and the people in it;
- You’re more likely to empathize with other people’s struggles;
- You’re better able to see connections between different people and backgrounds.
All of these are essential to writing with depth and heart. Plus, if you’re an introvert, meeting and getting to know a wide variety of people can be more of a challenge.
We’re not saying you should give up meeting people in person — just that reading biographies can help you diversify your acquaintanceship and challenge old thinking habits.
Both are essential to your growth as a writer.
What Are The Best Selling Biographies?
Some of the best-selling biographies are books you wouldn’t usually think to look for. Whether lighthearted and funny or heavy and thought-provoking, these biographies have been flying off the shelves since they were published.
1. At My Mother’s Knee… And Other Low Joints: Tales From Paul’s Mischievous Young Years by Paul O’Grady
Paul O’Grady, a popular and widely adored British Entertainer, recalls his fond memories of growing up in Irish Catholic Birkenhead. Characters from his past come to life in this collection of mischievous, daring, and hilarious stories. Written for fans of all things sneaky.
Dave Pelzer tells the harrowing and eye-opening story of one of California’s worst child abuse cases. As a child, he suffered severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother. Through it all, his remarkable will to survive never wavered.
This book is a heavy read. Survivors of child abuse may find some descriptions to be graphic and triggering.
In Peter Kay’s autobiography, he explores the odd aspects of family life. Where other comedians often turn to jokes about sex and politics, Peter Kay finds a way to incorporate mundane experiences like driving lessons, first jobs, and dads dancing badly at weddings.
The combination of humor and nostalgia is sure to make this book a page-turner.
New York Times bestselling author Bill Bryson writes about his experience growing up as a baby boomer in Des Moines, Iowa. As a child, he fantasized about being a superhero and even dubbed himself “The Thunderbolt Kid.”
He tells of normal and exciting aspects of his childhood, sharing stories about his neighborhood adventures and his loving, eccentric family.
Did you find the best biographies to read this year?
If you’re looking for good biographies to read, it can’t hurt to skim a sampling of those that have already earned hundreds or even thousands of positive reviews from other readers.
I hope you downloaded a few samples to look over in the search for your next great read.
Whether the main draw is the human subject of the story or the biographer’s own storytelling ability, you’re likely to find more than you counted on.
May your curiosity and sense of adventure influence everything you do today.