12 Biographies You Should Have Read By Now
If you haven't already enjoyed these powerful biographies, get ready to explore the lives of some of the world's most notable, notorious, and extraordinary people.
The Life of Samuel Johnson
Although it was published in 1791, this book, written by Scottish biographer James Boswell, remains the standard for modern biographies. In fact, some critics consider it to be one of the best biographies ever written. Johnson, a poet, essayist, biographer, and lexicographer, is best known for publishing A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755—widely considered one of the best dictionaries every published. Although not much is known about Johnson’s early life, this biography showcases the rise of Johnson’s tremendous career and details his ability to overcome adversity, including his struggles with anxiety, hearing loss, partial blindness, and behavioral tics, which were diagnosed posthumously as Tourette’s syndrome.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
This 2005 biography by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin profiles the life of America’s 16th president, as well as four members of his cabinet who served with him from 1861 to 1865. Critics consider this book, which won the 2006 Lincoln Prize, one of the most insightful and readable portraits of Lincoln because it focuses on personalities, not politics—namely, how Lincoln managed to build relationships with some of his former rivals. Pick up one of these other 20 books you really should have read by now.
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Written in 2001 by award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot, this book tells the tragic story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer and mother of five who died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951, at age 31. Before she died, researchers took her tumor cells without her knowledge or her family’s permission. Those cells—which now number in the billions, are known as HeLa cells—became one of the most crucial tools in the field of medicine. Skloot expertly weaves a discussion of race and ethics into this tale of scientific discovery.
Critics have referred to this Pulitzer-prize winning portrait of our second president as “epic,” and it’s easy to see why. Written by American historian and esteemed author David McCullough, John Adams is a soaring, powerful read. It takes the reader on an in-depth journey of Adams’ early life and then through his presidency and marriage to Abigail. While it focuses on politics, of course, it’s also a love story and a study of human nature and loyalty and was so well received that it spawned the critically acclaimed HBO series of the same name. These are 12 books you should read before watching their movies based on them.
Reading this article on a smartphone? You likely have Steve Jobs to thank for that. One of the best biographies, written by notable biographer Walter Isaacson, this book provides readers with a never-before-seen, unrestricted, and unfiltered glimpse into the Apple founder’s life. Isaacson based the book on more than 40 interviews that he held with Jobs over a period of several years, while Jobs was terminally ill, as well as hundreds of interviews he conducted with Jobs’ family members, friends, and colleagues, both past and present. Jobs was and still is widely considered one of the world’s greatest innovators, and this book presents a concise yet intricate look at the man behind the myth. These are the 10 books everyone lies about reading.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Not so much a singular biography as a collection of biographies, this book by American writer James Agee profiles the hardships three sharecropper families faced during the Great Depression. Along with photographer Walker Evans’s stark images, the book details the suffering endured by the three poverty-stricken families as they struggle to survive the Dust Bowl’s harsh conditions. Although it was a commercial flop at the time, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is now widely considered to be a pillar of exemplary journalism.
Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nelly Bly
In 1887, Pittsburgh-based reporter Nelly Bly feigned insanity at a boarding house so that she would be involuntarily committed to a ten-day stay at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and report on the horrific conditions present at the clinic. Bly’s expose, aptly called Ten Days in a Mad-House, was the obvious catalyst for this book by Deborah Noyes, which also delves into Bly’s entire reporting career, up to the time of her death. While the book is marketed as middle school nonfiction, its focus on sexism in the workplace, mental health, and gender norms make it a must-read for adults too.
Churchill: A Life
This epic work by Martin Gilbert details the life and career of one of the world’s greatest leaders: Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, who served as the British Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 and then again between 1951 and 1955. This book highlights aspects of Churchill’s life that are seldom discussed: his childhood and upbringing as a wealthy aristocrat; his early career in the army and government; his advocacy of the labor party; and, of course, his leadership during World War II, where he led his country to victory against Nazi Germany. Don’t miss these 12 brilliant books you can read in a weekend.
‘Einstein: His Life and Universe’
Yes, Albert Einstein was a genius, and plenty has already been written about the physicist’s Nobel-Prize-winning scientific discoveries. Where this book by biographer Walter Isaacson differs, however, is in its examination of the aspects of Einstein’s life that made him human and relatable. Because of Einstein’s “sassy attitude,” for example, he was unable to find a job after graduating from Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, where he studied physics. One of the best biographies on Einstein, the book discusses how Einstein’s insolent personality served as the impetus for his groundbreaking discoveries, and also explores his often rocky relationships with his wives, other women, his children, and colleagues.
The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Abby and Andrew Borden were violently murdered with a hatchet. Lizzie Borden—Andrew’s daughter and Abby’s stepdaughter—was arrested for the murder and sent to jail for the remainder of the investigation and trial. The sensationalism that followed this horrific crime could rival any modern-day scandal. This thriller by Sarah Miller was written for middle schoolers, but its grisly details, as well as its focus on turbulent and tense Borden family relationships, make it an intriguing and gripping read for any adult fan of true crime. Don’t miss these 18 books you can read in one day.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One 1884-1993
This 1992 biography, the first of a three-volume set by noted history professor Blanche Wieson Cook, is one of the best biographies that looks at the woman who is often referred to as the greatest First Lady the United States has ever had. In this first volume, Cook explores the early parts of Roosevelt’s life, including her birth into a wealthy family that was torn apart by alcoholism; an unhappy childhood that stemmed from the early death of her parents; her education at a private finishing school; and her marriage to FDR.
Are you a fan of Hamilton: An American Musical? While you’re waiting for tickets to become available, consider picking up a copy of this book by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Ron Chernow, which inspired the sold-out show. The book—jokingly referred to as “Hamiltome” because of its hefty size—chronicles Hamilton’s often-understood life as one of America’s Founding Fathers. It starts with Hamilton’s humble beginnings as an orphan, then winds its way through his service as a staunch patriot in George Washington’s army. The book, one of the best biographies out there, also showcases Hamilton’s meteoric rise to become the first Treasury Secretary of the United States before ending with his death, which came at the hands of a duel with Aaron Burr. Don’t miss these other 50 books you should read before you turn 50.
Every product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.