Know All About Best Biographies

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best biographies

Biographies have often sparked debates. The author Henry James, on his last days, expressed to his nephew his strong desire to prevent anyone from using his private letters and diaries after his death. Similarly, the renowned writer Hermione Lee has likened best biographies to post-death examinations that could potentially tarnish a person’s reputation by exposing their life to public scrutiny.

Despite its origins in ancient times, the biography genre did not become widely popular until the mid-20th century, coinciding with our fascination with the lives of celebrities. Since then, life stories of leaders, activists, artists, and musicians have frequently topped the sales charts, and many have been turned into award-winning films like A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, and Steve Jobs.

The reason we read so many books about the lives and ends of people we don’t know, as narrated by others, might be our curiosity or perhaps our attempt to learn about ourselves by observing the successes and setbacks of these individuals.

To avoid an overwhelming list, we have only included biographies that are available and have been translated into English. We have also chosen just one book for each writer and subject. Here are some of the best biographies ever written, presented in order of importance.

Crown The Black Count

You are likely familiar with The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 revenge novel. However, did you realize it was inspired by the life of Dumas’s father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas? Thomas-Alexandre was of mixed race, born to a French nobleman and a Haitian slave.

Tom Reiss’s biography, The Black Count, reads more like an adventure novel than a nonfiction work. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2013, and it is only a matter of time before a filmmaker adapts it into a blockbuster movie.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

Not many best biographies are as entertaining as this one by the bold British reviewer Craig Brown. Princess Margaret might have been a popular figure on Netflix’s The Crown, but it is Brown’s knack for picking out flashy details and surprising facts that show why she was the center of attention in the 1950s for celebrities like Pablo Picasso, Gore Vidal, Peter Sellers, and Andy Warhol. 

When the book reviewer Parul Sehgal mentions she devoured the book with the same enthusiasm as Margaret enjoyed her morning drink, you can expect a really enjoyable read.

Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller

you can also read one of the best biographies of Buckminster Fuller. He was often called the “modern Leonardo da Vinci” during the 1960s and 1970s. Fuller introduced the concept of “Spaceship Earth” and inspired Silicon Valley’s belief that technology could positively impact the world. 

Despite facing critics who deemed his ideas impractical, his legacy endures. Alec Nevala-Lee’s writing in this biography is as calm and precise as one of Fuller’s geodesic domes. His research, including previously unseen documents, makes this book groundbreaking and full of surprises.

Free Press Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Thelonious Monk, an American jazz pianist and composer, is often surrounded by myths and legends. However, Robin D. G. Kelley’s biography sheds light on the real man behind these stories. 

With access to Monk’s family archives, Kelley uncovers intriguing details about Monk’s life, from his birth in a small North Carolina town to his passing near Manhattan.

University of Chicago Press Frank Lloyd Wright

Many books have been written about America’s famous architect, but the biography by Secrest from 1998 is especially enjoyable. It openly discusses how Wright could be very difficult, even with his friends and family. 

Also, Secrest’s thorough research, which includes over 100,000 letters and interviews with almost everyone who knew Wright, offers a unique perspective on how his personal experiences shaped his architectural designs.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison’s famous book, Invisible Man, tells the story of a Black man dealing with deep-rooted racism in the southern United States when he was young. He later moved to New York and encountered a different type of discrimination. 

Arnold Rampersand’s biography of Ellison is fascinating because it shows how Ellison’s own life, from a small place in Oklahoma to the bustling literary world of New York during the Harlem Renaissance, is reflected in Invisible Man.

Oscar Wilde: A Life

Oscar Wilde, born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, was an Irish wit, poet, and dramatist. His reputation rests primarily on his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), as well as his comic masterpieces Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). 

Wilde was a spokesman for the late 19th-century Aesthetic movement in England, which advocated “art for art’s sake.” His life was marked by celebrated civil and criminal suits related to homosexuality, leading to his imprisonment from 1895 to 1897.

Beacon Press A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun

Gwendolyn Brooks, born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, was an influential American poet. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950. Her poetry delved into the everyday experiences of urban African Americans, blending Modernist techniques with Black language and expressions. 

Throughout her life, she remained a Chicago resident, and her work celebrated and explored the struggles and joys of ordinary people in her community. Angela Jackson’s biography provides fresh insights into Brooks’s personal life and its impact on her poetry over five decades.

Atria Books Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century

Could Buster Keaton be considered the most important movie maker of the early 1900s? Dana Stevens presents a strong argument in her exciting combination of life story, thoughtful writings, and a look at cultural history. 

Stevens’ work is as varied and enjoyable as Keaton’s own movies, moving from one type of story to another in a fun way. She also highlights how Keaton’s work still affects movies and TV shows even now.

Algonquin Books Empire of Deception

Dean Jobb is an expert at writing true stories that are as good as those by Erik Larsen, who wrote The Devil in the White City. Jobb’s book about Leo Koretz, who was like the Bernie Madoff of the 1920s, is one of the rare best biographies that’s as exciting as a mystery novel. 

It takes place in Chicago from the 1880s to the 1920s and includes detailed descriptions of that time, from grand houses by the lake to roads full of early cars.

Vintage Penelope Fitzgerald

Hermione Lee has written biographies of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, which are quite good. However, her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, a less-known English writer who authored The Bookshop, The Blue Flower, and The Beginning of Spring, could be her finest work. It is shorter than her other biographies, with just over 500 pages, mainly because there is not as much information about Fitzgerald’s life. 

However, Lee can say a lot with a few words that make this biography a delightful read. It is exciting because it feels like Lee is revealing a story about Fitzgerald that has not been told before.

Red Comet

A lot of writers have explored Sylvia Plath’s life, linking her poems to her passing at thirty. However, this remarkable book presents a broader picture of Plath, not just focusing on her sad end. Heather Clark’s skill in writing makes this book a pleasure to read. 

It offers the most detailed look at Plath’s last year, including fresh details that offer new perspectives on her life, her poems, and her passing.

Pontius Pilate

Most biographies have lots of documents to go on, but not much is left about Pontius Pilate, the governor who decided to execute Jesus long ago. Ann Wroe’s book takes this lack of information and turns it into a strength, creating a captivating blend of facts and educated guesses that reads like an engaging historical story.

Brand: History Book Club Bolivar

In the 1800s, Simón Bolívar guided six countries, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela, to freedom from Spanish rule. Marie Arana’s exciting biography and history book skillfully tells his grand story with lively writing. 

It starts with a memorable first line: “They heard him before they saw him: the sound of hooves hitting the ground, constant like a heartbeat, pressing like a revolution.

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History

Have you ever read a biography of a fictional character? In the 1930s and 1940s, Charlie Chan gained popularity as a Chinese American police detective in Earl Derr Biggers’s mystery novels and their film adaptations. Yunte Huang, while writing a book about Chan, became a detective himself. 

He tracked down the real-life inspiration for the character a Hawaiian police officer named Chang Apana, born shortly after the Civil War. Huang’s work is a clever mix of biography and cultural analysis, exploring how Chan challenged stereotypical Chinese villain portrayals in early Hollywood.

Random House Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a remarkable woman from the 1900s. She was a poet and playwright who did not hide her bisexuality and became a symbol of women’s rights. She played a big part in turning Greenwich Village into a lively cultural hub in the 1920s. 

Nancy Milford has a talent for sharing spicy stories and smart thoughts, and she really brings out what was so charming about Millay, including her voice, which was so alluring it drew in both men and women.

Simon & Schuster Steve Jobs

Not many get to pick who writes their life story, but the late Apple co-founder did just that by choosing Walter Isaacson, known for his award-winning biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. 

The biography “Steve Jobs” was turned into a movie by Aaron Sorkin in 2015. It is a thrilling read, packed with unexpected turns, largely due to Isaacson’s extensive research. He talked to Jobs over forty times and reached out to nearly everyone who had ever met him.

Brand: Random House Vera 

Vera Yevseyevna Nabokova, the wife, editor, and translator of Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, was an inspiring figure in his life. Stacy Schiff’s biography sheds light on Vera’s fascinating journey across Russia, Europe, and the United States. Unlike many other biographies, this one breaks free from Vladimir’s shadow and portrays Vera as a remarkable woman. 

It is a romantic read, filled with unforgettable moments, such as Vera carrying a handgun to protect Vladimir during their butterfly-hunting adventures. 

Greenblatt, Stephen Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

You might wonder why we need yet another book about Shakespeare. However, Greenblatt’s excellent biography takes you on a journey back in time to witness how a man from a small English town rose to become the world’s most celebrated writer. 

Similar to Wroe’s work on Pontius Pilate, this book includes some guesswork due to the scarce records of Shakespeare’s everyday life. However, Greenblatt’s clever approach uses bits from Shakespeare’s own plays and poems to weave an engaging story.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the best biographies give us a window into the extraordinary lives of others and help us understand the world and ourselves a little better. Whether you are looking for inspiration, education, or entertainment, there is a biography out there that is perfect for you. 

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