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.
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.
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.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
Humboldt (1769-1859) was a German naturalist and the most famous scientist of his age.
Wulf’s book explores his background, his expeditions and discoveries, and his contributions to modern day efforts at preserving and supporting the natural world.
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.
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.
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.
This book honors her accomplishments along with other aspects of her life that few remember.
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.
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.
Narrative, humor, and insight merge to make this the best possible introduction to Leonardo da Vinci.
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.
Besides Blight’s writing, this top biography shines because it includes many of Douglass’ original manuscripts. Get ready to be profoundly inspired.
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.
McCullough draws readers into their lives and reveals all that led to their reckless experiments and world-changing discoveries.
Whether or not you’re a fan of the PBS Masterpiece series, Victoria, this biography will introduce you to one of the most memorable, relatable, and endearing monarchs the world has ever known.
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.
Timothy Egan’s passionate, unique storytelling honors the quest of a photographer who helped preserve Native American history.
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
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.
As a witness to pivotal moments in U.S. History during his tenure, Hill shares fascinating stories that shed light on each of the five presidents he served, as well as their families.
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.”
Grant’s military fame led to two terms as president, and this comprehensive biography reveals the man that he was.
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.
The real Washington comes alive in these pages, testifying to Chernow’s scholarship and genius for storytelling.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Thanks to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway musical, Hamilton, a revival of interest in the founding fathers has made biographies like this one by Chernow more appealing than ever.
Truman by David McCullough
In this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, McCullough covers all the memorable events in the life of a man who became one of our most courageous presidents.
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.
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.
Focusing on Jefferson’s curious personality, Ellis gets into his head, exploring how his character evolved and his opinions shaped the destiny of America.
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.
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.
Dallek weaves JFK’s presidency with his personality, background, and ideas, exploring the many layers of a man who influences American culture to this day.
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.
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.
An “underdog fighter” in many of his films and in real life, Stewart set an example of courage and resilience that permeate the pages of this book.
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.
The second option was written by the man who stayed by Mercury’s side to the end.
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.
With careful research and enlightening interviews, he presents Lennon as a thoroughly human and fascinating artist.
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.
Meet Silicon Valley’s most audacious entrepreneur and one of the most brilliant and fearless men of the current era.
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.
He presents the fruits of these interviews as a riveting life story of the inventive, passionate, and driven perfectionist behind Apple.
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.
Related: 20 Books You Can't Put Down
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.
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.
The battles he fought behind the scenes made him who he was, and Itzkoff creates a fitting and well-researched tribute to one of the most gifted performers of all time.
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.
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.
Skloot explores the life of Henrietta — apart from her stolen cells and along with universal themes of race and ethics — to create a life story as immortal as the woman who lived it.
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.
While the two are widely regarded as the “Adam and Eve of the NSA,” Fagone’s biography is the first to explore Elizabeth’s unique background and contribution to America’s war against the Nazis.
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.
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.
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.
Relying on extensive research, Matzen investigates not only the crash but the lives and legacies of all 22 people on board.
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
Both Purnell and Pearson do their utmost to honor Virginia Hall, a celebrated American spy who created a vast spy network throughout France and became a champion of the Resistance.
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.
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.
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.