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The best biographies make for compelling reads. They bring their subjects to life. Moreover, when we’re reading about successful people (living or dead), we may recognize that their struggles have parallels to ours. Their stories can embolden us to finally pursue our dreams.
In addition, biographical books give us a glimpse of how life was during certain periods in history. Finally, well-written biographies allow us to have a deeper understanding of the human condition.
Today, we’re sharing our curated list of the best biographies of all time. Enjoy reading them!
1. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
Phil Knight’s memoir stands apart from other biographies about entrepreneurs. Rather than provide misleading how-to’s for success, the memoir is an honest recounting of the struggles of an entrepreneur.
Knight and his team were on a quest to provide the world with a product they believed could change people’s lives.
This refreshing take on the entrepreneurial biography tells us of the humble beginnings of Nike. It reveals the passion and vision that fueled Knight’s team to build the company whose logo is one of the most recognized in the world today.
2. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Although most biographies are about people, Seabiscuit is about a legendary racehorse and the three men who made significant contributions to its fame.
Hillenbrand’s writing brings the characters and historic events to life in a way that no other writer could. Her meticulous research gives this biographical account more credibility.
3. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
In this book, Sylvia Nasar provides a dramatic and moving retelling of the life of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash.
During his 20s, Nash established his reputation as a math wizard. He made significant contributions to the fields of international trade, computer architecture, and cosmology. However, schizophrenia overtook him and drove him to madness.
However, that’s not the end of the story. Nash emerged triumphant from an illness that experts believed was incurable. In fact, he went on to receive a Nobel Prize for his contributions to game theory.
Nasar’s book is about more than one man’s struggle to overcome his personal challenges. It is also a message of hope and redemption.
4. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
Frida Kahlo was one of the most prominent Mexican painters of the 20th century.
In Hayden Herrera’s take on the artist’s life, we witness how the numerous painful, ecstatic, and sensual experiences Frida had were responsible for unleashing her creative power. (Check out this post to learn about creative hobbies you can do to make something great.)
This biography is both a hauntingly captivating and eye-opening journey into the human side of this legendary woman.
5. The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough
This well-researched book tells the story of how the American northwest was settled.
In this uplifting biography, David McCullough introduces readers to a group of people who endured the hardships of a new frontier to establish a community based on equality, freedom, and justice.
McCullough’s well-researched book is an ideal read for people of all ages who would like to know about an important part of American history.
6. Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith
Considered a “leader without presumption,” Dwight D. Eisenhower led Americans through both the chaos of a world at war and peaceful times at home.
This biography offers a refreshing insight into the life of America’s 34th president. The well-researched account shows us Eisenhower’s life as a young boy from Abilene, Kansas, covers his time at West Point, explores the war years, and discusses his term of office at the White House.
The lessons from Eisenhower’s leadership style are still relevant in today’s turbulent times. (Check out the best leadership books to advance your career.)
7. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
Millions have read the Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography of her growing up years in the American Midwest during the late 19th century.
However, Ingalls’ life story had never been fully told until Caroline Fraser wrote Prairie Fires. Her book is based on numerous unpublished resources and fills in the gaps of Laura’s story.
Fraser was able to show the life that Laura and her family endured as pioneers. The biography reveals the indomitable pioneering spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder through all that she endured.
8. Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Some famous people’s biographies shine a light on secrets hidden away from view of “regular folks.” This biography about Joseph and Rose Kennedy’s daughter Rosemary is a great example.
Rosemary was the elder sister of former US president John F. Kennedy, Jr. and senators Ted and Robert Kennedy.
After a botched lobotomy when Rosemary was 23, her parents had her institutionalized. The rest of the family were not to know about her condition until several decades later.
This heartbreaking story was the catalyst for the US government to direct its attention to the mentally and developmentally challenged in the nation and address their needs.
9. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
On April 4, 2013, a game warden captured a man named Christopher Knight burgling a summer cottage in Rome, Maine. For nearly three decades, the area around North Pond had been gripped with fear because of the numerous burglaries in the area.
In his arrest, Knight confessed to over 1,000 incidents of burglary. However, the story does not end there. The world soon found out that Knight lived in a very dense part of the forest and had not spoken to another human being for 27 years.
This thought-provoking biography is the result of journalist Michael Finkel’s interview with Knight during his incarceration. It attempts to paint readers a portrait of a man who turned his back on civilization when he was 20 years old to live according to his own terms.
10. Leornardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
Walter Isaacson makes artist, inventor, and scientist Leonardo da Vinci come alive in this carefully researched and well-written biography.
Isaacson’s premise is that the creative side of da Vinci was fueled by his scientific explorations and experiments. He had, as his foremost reference, over 7,000 journal pages left by the inventor.
In this book, Isaacson inspires us to tap into our own creativity. More importantly, he emboldens us to think outside of the box.
11. The Woman who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone
Jason Fagone invites readers to join him on a thrilling ride as he chronicles the life of Elizabeth Smith, a brilliant code-breaker.
Smith played an integral role in America’s history. In the years after WWI, she contributed her talent to help capture lawbreakers during Prohibition.
Then, in WWII, Elizabeth cracked several versions of Enigma, a communication device that was favored by the Nazis.
Fagone gives readers a glimpse into the art and science of codebreaking. He brings focus to some of the individuals who were key to making intelligence gathering what it is today.
12. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
If you’re a writer, you’ll find Stephen King’s memoir a treasure trove of advice on how to improve your craft.
Even if you aren’t interested in writing, you’ll still appreciate this book that leaves readers inspired to find their lives’ passion.
King’s memoir is divided into the following sections:
King’s memoir is empowering, inspiring, and entertaining for fans and non-fans alike.
13. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss
This biography tells the love story of Marie and Pierre Curie. It chronicles how they met and fell in love, and tells about their shared discovery of two novel elements that brought science to the threshold of a new era.
Lauren Redniss succeeds in presenting a chronicle of the love and life of two of history’s most intriguing personalities. Redniss’s research spanned the globe and included an interview with the Curies’ own granddaughter.
14. Maus (Boxed Set) by Art Spiegelman
In Maus, Art Spiegelman presents a haunting retelling of his father’s experience during the Holocaust.
Spiegelman, a cartoonist, also illustrated this graphic novel that was serialized from 1980 to 1991. Jews are depicted as mice, while Nazis are cats.
The moving account is not an easy read, as it deals with trauma and how it impacts survivors. Nevertheless, it is worth checking out for the very same reason.
15. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Totto-Chan chronicles the experiences of little girl Tetsuko when she studied at a school founded by Sosaku Kobayashi.
Sometimes, a word or a gesture can encourage us to be better versions of ourselves. In this heartwarming biography, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi—a well-known TV personality in Japan—recognizes how the experiences she had at kindly Kobayashi’s school contributed to her success.
The book also gives us a glimpse of how alternative education in Japan works.
16. West with the Night by Beryl Markham
West with the Night follows the adventures of aviatrix Beryl Markham while she was growing up in Kenya. Readers will be captivated by her writing about experiences such as hunting, training horses, and flying across the Atlantic.
This inspiring classic will enthrall you with its vivid descriptions of Markham’s exploits, the beauty of its writing, and the depictions of the places she has been.
17. The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger
This biography compels us to ponder what to do with the life that has been given to us.
Edith Eger was 16 years old when she and her family were transported in cattle cars to Auschwitz. Her parents were immediately killed upon arrival, while Edith and her sister Magda endured the horrors of the concentration camps until the end of the war.
Dr. Eger spent many years struggling with the trauma of her experience. She also struggled with survivor’s guilt.
The path to her healing lay in confronting the past once and for all. In the end, her choice determined how she could move forward into the future.
This is a book full of hope and insights into the choices we make that keep us locked in the past or open doors to our future.
18. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela spent his life fighting against racial oppression. His dedication earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and helped him win the presidency of South Africa.
While Mandela was in prison for his fight against the apartheid regime, he secretly wrote a memoir. This memoir became the basis for Long Walk to Freedom.
The autobiography chronicles the life of a person who fought for human rights. It shares the convictions, experiences, and struggles of Mandela, as well as his eventual triumph that inspired the whole world.
19. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
First published in 1946, Viktor Frankl’s autobiography is considered one of the most influential books of all time. To date, it has been translated into more than 30 languages and sold more than 15 million copies.
In this book, Frankl chronicled his experience inside the Nazi concentration camps. Everything that Frankl and fellow captives suffered in the camps became the basis for his theory of logotherapy, which states that human beings are compelled to “find meaning in life” even in the direst of circumstances.
The book remains relevant decades after it was first published. It continues to be a source of inspiration to look for the significance in our lives even when we are faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.
20. Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
This is a remarkable account of a white man who darkened his skin and lived as a black man in America’s Deep South during the 1950s.
John Howard Griffin chronicled his experience with segregation and racism and revealed a side of America that still haunts the nation today.
21. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou offers her life story in this beautifully written book that captures the bittersweet time of childhood and shows how words can help make the world a better place.
In this book, Maya shares her experience of longing for a parent, of powerlessness at the hands of an abuser, and of willing herself to live despite the consequences of abuse.
Her story shows readers that, in order to transcend painful experiences, they need to look within and discover their own strengths. They need to be receptive to other people’s kindness. More importantly, they must learn to love and accept themselves as they are. Only then will they truly be free.
22. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
Most of the information we have about the slave trade come from those who participated and even benefitted from this terrible time in history, or from those who worked to abolish the practice.
It is very rare to find information that comes directly from those who were enslaved. But this eye-opening book provides first-hand information about what it took to survive the harrowing ordeal of being captured from one’s home and sold as a slave in the 19th century.
Zora Neal Hurston’s meticulously crafted narrative offers valuable information about our culture and history.
23. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Skloot tells the story of the late Henrietta Lacks, whose cells became the center of a multi-billion-dollar industry that provided many breakthroughs in medical research.
However, Henrietta’s cells were harvested, tested, and distributed without her knowledge. It was only two decades after Henrietta’s death that her family learned of the medical breakthroughs made possible because of Henrietta’s cells.
This is a thought-provoking and eye-opening book. Skloot is successful in making it both a tribute to a previously unknown woman of color who made life-changing contributions to the world and a discussion about ethics in medical research.
24. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
This book is a celebration of an unshakable supporter and defender of the truth.
Carmon and Knizhnik deliver a stirring and empowering account of the life and work of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The book tracks the progression of RBG’s career, beginning in her 20s and working her way to the highest court in the US by the time she was 60 years old.
This book is a fitting tribute to a woman who dedicated her life to making the world a better place.
25. The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
Red Cloud has the distinction of being the only known American Indian to be victorious over the United States in a war. However, the story of the Sioux leader has been overlooked for years.
Military historians Bob Drury and Tom Clavin bring us this astonishing account. The book reads like a captivating Western novel, but enshrines Red Cloud in his rightful place in US history.
26. The Splendid and the Vile: Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Bombing of London by Erik Larson
Numerous biographies have been written about Winston Churchill, one of history’s most iconic personalities. In this latest biography, readers are given a backstage pass to Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Larson’s account of this moment in history not only shows us Churchill’s leadership skills and courage, which were immediately put to the test with Germany’s bombing of London—it also introduces us to several individuals in Churchill’s inner circle.
Through Larson’s engaging storytelling, readers can’t help but become engaged with the characters who endured England’s darkest hour.
27. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
In February 2022, a century-old mystery was solved after the wreck of Shackleton's vessel, Endurance, was finally found 9,800 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea.
This book, published in 2015, is a fitting tribute to the crew who made the ill-fated voyage and survived.
It is a gripping narrative of heroism and miracles that demonstrates humanity’s indomitable will to survive.
28. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell
British author Sonia Purnell’s years of extensive research into the life of an American woman named Virginia Hall resulted in this riveting biography about an unlikely character who excelled in the world of war espionage.
This book won the Plutarch Award for Best Biography and has been chosen as book of the year by numerous prestigious media outlets, including NPR, the Seattle Times, the Times of London, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
29. The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World by A. J. Baime
Harry S. Truman was sworn in as the United States’ 33rd president after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. At that time, many people doubted his capacity to lead the country through the last stages of the Second World War.
Nevertheless, Truman faced the challenges of his office head on. This book is a thoughtful and well-written account of how the unlikely successor to the Oval Office led the US through one of its greatest challenges to secure his place in world politics.
30. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah is the host of The Daily Show. He was born in South Africa, during the time of Apartheid, a period when marriage between “whites” and “non-whites” was prohibited.
In this moving and heartwarming memoir, Noah shares his quest to find his place in the world. One thing that stands out in his narrative is the unconditional love of his mother, which sustained him through all of his bittersweet experiences.
31. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
This outstanding biography of one of the United States’ Founding Fathers tells the story of an orphan boy from the Caribbean who, by overcoming numerous challenges, rose to become the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
The magic of Chernow’s writing is so infectious that this book is acknowledged as the main source of inspiration for the popular musical Hamilton.
The Final Word on the Best Biographies of All Time
There you have it—a curated list of the best biographies of all time. Reading these books encourages us to go and live meaningful lives and follow our dreams.
We hope you’ve found a title or two to add to your reading list.
If you’re looking for further inspiration, you might want to read an article about famous people who were once considered failures. In addition, you can check out this post on famous people who kept journals.
Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.
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