Great, classic biographies often feature people who are both larger than life and seriously flawed. They fascinate us because warts-and-all tales make their subjects’ accomplishments all the more impressive, or at least very interesting and highly entertaining.
To this point, I just finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I bought my first Apple computer, an Apple II+, in 1981. Owning an Apple II was not simply owning one machine. Even then it meant buying into the Apple ethos. Its slogan was “Apple II Forever,” and I stuck with Apple IIs through a couple of iterations, going on from there to all manner of Macintoshes, not to mention iPads and iPods and every other iThing you can think of. So I was primed for the inside story on the man behind Apple. The person you meet in Isaacson’s book is brilliant and seductive—I’ve attached the video of the 1983 keynote address below, where he introduces the Macintosh and its famous advertisement—and also nasty, small-minded, mean-spirited and just plain ornery. Isaacson captures all these facets of Jobs in a definitive biography of both a man and our digital times.
Another ornery character is at the center of another of my favorite biographies, John Adams by David McCullough. You might have seen it dramatized on HBO, and that was good, but the book is remarkable. Adams was the man who defended the British soldiers, the “wrong” side of the Boston Massacre; he was the least diplomatic man ever to walk the planet, yet Congress sent him over to Europe to represent the warring colonies and, eventually, to meet with George III; and he was the imperious one-term president who went so far as to sign the notorious Alien and Sedition acts, making it illegal to speak ill of the president. McCullough’s rich skill as a writer brings Adams to life in a narrative as compelling as any novel.
If I had to pick just one biography, though, the best of the best, it would have to be Power Broker, Robert Caro’s monumental book about master builder Robert Moses. When it comes to larger than life, Moses set the standard. Hated and loved with equal fervor, he became an unelected political force, feared by mayors, governor, even presidents. He made roads and bridges and parks, tore down neighborhoods and built up other ones, all in his own vision of a dynamic New York City at the center of a transportation network never-before-dreamed of. Yet this man who built more roads than the ancient Romans couldn’t even drive a car! Author Caro’s massive biography of LBJ, another political force both hated and loved, may ultimately outshine his Moses, but until it’s finished, I’ll stick with this one.
Three great classic biographies by three of our best living writers. How can you go wrong?