Learning from the best biography books helps you better articulate your own writing. Whether you are currently working toward creating a title that can join the best biography books, or hope to in the future, learning from what really works will help you.
In this article, I break down 22 of the best biography books. In addition, I provide a lesson from each for you to take into your next project.
Best biography books: Why do they matter?
The best biography books play a large role in documenting history and the impact of important figures. That said, the best biography books aren’t just restricted to history. As you’ll see in the following list, the best biography books span decades, centuries, and topics. Let’s dive in!
1. A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar
John Nash didn’t just overcome external difficulties to win the Nobel Prize, but he struggled with schizophrenia as well. Nash was a mathematical genius, legend, and man who experienced the life-changing power of love.
Tip: Incorporate human qualities and themes into biographies with larger-than-life protagonists.
2. Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges
Alan Turing is remembered for playing a tremendous role in saving the Allies from the Nazis, as well as inventing the framework on which the computer was built. His deeply personal story, infused with history-shaping breakthroughs, makes for a page-turner.
Tip: Provide historical context for readers to fully appreciate the successes of landmark figures.
3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Lacks was a tobacco farmer in the South whose cells helped launch a multimillion-dollar industry. However, her cells were taken without her consent, or her knowledge, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Neither she nor her family saw a dime of the profits Lacks’ cells helped create.
Tip: When writing on the dark history of countries, such as the experimentation on African Americans in this biography, dare to tell the whole story.
4. Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow
Historically misunderstood, Chernow reveals the nuance of Hamilton, such as: growing up an illegitimate orphan to his key role in The Federalist Papers.
Tip: Showcase the grandeur and humanity in the subject of a biography. Take time to dive into the details of a person’s life rather than simply the well-known facts.
5. Martin Luther, Eric Metaxas
Luther is known as the monk who sparked a discussion that changed the world. While reading a biography on the changing tides of history may feel heady, Metaxas incorporates beautiful storytelling techniques into his chapters.
Tip: When writing nonfiction, layer in fiction writing rules.
6. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, Craig Brown
The life story of Princess Margaret is one of dichotomy. Brown uses a variety of resources to factually portray her life on the page, including: interviews, diaries, announcements, catalogues, and essays.
Tip: Never hold back on research when attempting to write the best biography books, particularly when it comes to controversial individuals.
7. Ralph Ellison, Arnold Rampersad
Ralph Ellison authored Invisible Man, and Rampersad recounts his life facing systemic racism in the Deep South to his time in New York.
Tip: Show the similarities between the subject of the biography and the themes in their work.
8. Penelope Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee
It’s never too late to start writing, and Fitzgerald’s life story demonstrates this. Lee’s concise portrayal of Fitzgerald’s tremendous accomplishments spotlights her talent.
Tip: The writing rule “less is more” applies to biography as well as fiction.
9. Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson
We know what Jobs is known for, but this unflinching look at who he is provides a breakthrough look at the man behind the success.
Tip: When interviewing for biographies, look for the details that most readers won’t expect.
10. Remember The Time, Bill Whitfield, Javon Beard, and Tanner Colby
Written by Micheal Jackson’s personal bodyguards, this behind-the-curtain biography reveals seemingly insignificant details that provide an inside look at the King of Pop.
Tip: Don’t underestimate the power of small details in the biographies of celebrities.
11. The Lost City of Z, David Grann
David Grann entered the Amazon jungle to discover what became of the vanished explorer, Percy Fawcett.
Tip: Incorporate aspects of thriller and adventure into biographies when possible.
12. Shirley Jackson, Ruth Franklin
Jackson is known for her thrillers but it took Franklin’s biography to reveal Jackson’s inner turmoil.
Tip: When appropriate, draw parallels between the work of the individual and what likely inspired the style of work they produced.
13. Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Goodwin’s expertise as a historian is showcased in her biography on Abraham Lincoln. An iconic United States president, Abraham’s Lincoln’s biography reveals his unique interactions with those he led.
Tip: Choose a key theme to thread throughout a biography.
14. Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson
Personality impacts creativity, and Isaacson uses the pages of Einstein’s biography to show just that.
Tip: Draw attention to the unique perspective of the individual you write about.
15. Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson
Another biography by Isaaacson, he draws from thousands of pages of da Vinci’s writings. More than this, he uses da Vinci’s methods to inspire self-development in today’s readers.
Tip: Even when writing a biography, always put the reader’s needs first.
16. Frank Lloyd Wright, Meryle Secrest
Described as “an explicit portrait of both the genius architect and the provocative con-man,” Secrest doesn’t hold back in detailing both sides of Wright.
Tip: When writing about extremely multi-faceted figures, draw attention to each detail and what helped form the person.
17. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Totto-Chan’s life story presents an engaging account of education and its impact on students.
Tip: The heroes of modern-day biographies are not always the type we expect. Shine a spotlight on the often ignored heroes of our day, such as teachers.
18. The Journey of Crazy Horse, Joseph M. Marshall III
It’s impossible for one history lesson in school to reveal the complexities of an individual’s mark on history. Marshall III’s description of Crazy Horse reveals details many have missed.
Tip: Don’t shy away from the complexities of the person you write about.
19. The Brontë Myth, Lucasta Miller
Not the first biography written on the Brontës, Miller reveals what the first biographer is said to have sugarcoated.
Tip: Where applicable, incorporate your own discoveries as you share an individual’s life.
20. Empire of Deception, Dean Jobb
Leo Koretz was a master swindler known for running a fraud that may have had the longest run in history.
Tip: Biographies can be as pulse-pounding as fiction! This book is known for its thriller-esque details. Incorporate setups and payoffs wherever possible.
21. A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun, Angela Jackson
In 1950, poet Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her story belongs in the best biography books not just because of her massive accomplishment, but because of the way in which her story is revealed.
Tip: Demonstrate how the subject’s personal life influenced their craft over the decades.
22. Camera Man, Dana Stevens
Stevens reflects on how Buster Keaton’s life showcased the transformation of the world in which he lived.
Tip: Don’t worry about mixing genres when it’s the best way to cover a multi-dimensional individual.
Join the best biography books out there today.
Access our free resource below for help making your next book one of the best biography books out there!