30 Best Biography Books You Should Have Read By Now
From your favorite figures to hidden stories you've never heard, this list of biographies will keep you glued to the page.
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An in-depth look into some fascinating figures
The best biographies help us learn about and contemplate the world. By reading about pivotal figures in history, we better understand the cultural context that we live in today. In learning the life stories of people who have faced different challenges and circumstances than we have, we can gain a deeper understanding of others, develop more empathy, and help forge our own paths. And while autobiographies and memoirs can lend an air of intimacy, biography books give you a more unbiased view of a person and an era.
Whether you’re an avid reader of biographies looking for lesser-known titles or are new to the genre and want an introduction to the best of the best, we’ve got something for you. We took a cross section of critically acclaimed and reader-recommended books that shine a light on some of the most fascinating, hidden, or influential stories you’ll want to learn about. These picks rank not just among the best nonfiction books but also the best books of all time, and you’re definitely in for a treat.
1. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude (2020)
In these tumultuous times, average citizens and leaders alike have been turning to the words of James Baldwin, one of the greatest writers on race in America. In this recent biography of Baldwin, author Eddie S. Glaude weaves Baldwin’s life and words from newly surfaced interviews with the state of racial tension in America today. In doing so, he shines Baldwin’s insight from the past onto current events and lights a path toward a better future. Begin Again was named one of the best books of the year by Time, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune, and it won the prestigious Stowe Prize.
2. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts (1982)
You may have seen the 2008 film Milk starring Sean Penn, but this biography goes deeper into Harvey Milk’s personal life and career, and wider in applying Milk’s story as a parallel for so much of what was happening to the gay community across the United States at the time. As one of the first openly gay public officials, Milk was a target, and his life was tragically taken before we could see the full potential of his charismatic leadership. Written in 1982 by San Francisco reporter Randy Shilts, there are aspects of this account that are now dated, but it vividly captures the outlook and political complexity of San Francisco in the 1970s. While you’re looking for new reading material, check out these other LGBTQ books that are inspiring, compelling, and entertaining.
3. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography by Miriam Pawel (2014)
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the California Book Award, this can easily be considered one of the best biographies of all time. It’s the first comprehensive biography of Cesar Chavez, one of the most influential Latinx figures in American history. Chavez’s remarkable life, mind, and journey from migrant worker to movement leader is written poignantly and with nuance by Miriam Pawel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
4. Alice Walker: A Life by Evelyn C. White (2004)
Alice Walker has given us some of the most celebrated and beloved books, including The Color Purple, which made her the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. In this comprehensive biography, Evelyn C. White conducts extensive research and numerous interviews and draws connections between Walker’s early life events, societal ills, and the brilliant writer that Walker would become. Whether you’ve read Walker’s work already or not, this is a biography you won’t want to miss. Here are more of the best books by female authors.
5. In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs by Stephen M. Ward (2016)
In this dual biography, Stephen M. Ward (professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan) skillfully crafts the rarely told story of James and Grace Lee Boggs. A true power couple, these intellectual and revolutionary minds were instrumental in the struggle for Black freedom. Hailing from different backgrounds, they moved along parallel paths until they converged in Detroit. Ward’s deep knowledge of the city shines through as well, making this a fascinating read for anyone interested in U.S. history, activism, labor movements, or love stories. Don’t miss these other books by Black authors across all genres.
6. The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller (2001)
The three Brontë sisters have been the subject of many biographies and much gossip. In this examination, author Lucasta Miller illustrates how the evolving views of the Brontës say more about the times in which these biographies were written than they do about the famous siblings themselves. Through research, Miller dispels myths and poses new theories, drawing readers in with her funny and frank style.
7. Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Maraniss (2006)
Yes, this is a book for sports fans, but it’s also for anyone who admires trailblazers and humanitarians. With narrative pacing that will sweep away any reader, Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss shows us why Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente meant so much to so many. Born in Puerto Rico, he broke barriers in baseball and felt a responsibility to help wherever he could. He died while trying to bring aid to Nicaragua, ending a bright light of a life far too soon. While this could work well for young baseball fans, depending on their age, you’ll also want to peruse this list of nonfiction books for kids.
8. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap (2007)
Another biography for sports fans and world-history lovers, this in-depth account of Jesse Owens’ inspiring victories is an illuminating page-turner. Sports journalist and ESPN contributor Jeremy Schaap brings us to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with vivid prose. We see what Owens was up against both at home and abroad, and how his wins reverberated across the world. Owens’ gold medals were both a personal triumph and a triumph against Nazi ideology. This is a fascinating read, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with Jesse Owens.
9. Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama by Diane Carol Fujino (2005)
The public first became widely aware of Yuri Kochiyama when Malcolm X was assassinated. She was the woman who was by his side and cradled his head as he left this world. Activist, professor, and author Diane Carol Fujino weaves archival research and interviews to show who Kochiyama was before and after this moment, and how her early experiences led to a life dedicated to activism and solidarity-building between Black and Asian American communities. From the internment of Japanese Americans to the Black movement in Harlem and beyond, this first biography of Kochiyama uncovers important and rarely discussed moments in U.S. history.
10. Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948 by Ramachandra Guha (2018)
Though everyone has heard of Gandhi and may even have some of his quotes framed, few know the story of his life. This biography takes us from his departure from South Africa to his assassination, the years of his remarkable life that changed the world the most dramatically. Author Ramachandra Guha is an acclaimed historian, and this serves not only as the story of a revolutionary but also as a lesson in India’s complex social structures.
11. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (2015)
If you’ve seen Hamilton, you probably remember the Marquis de Lafayette as the fun-loving young pal of Alexander Hamilton. In this original biography, best-selling author Sarah Vowell makes General Lafayette’s story just as entertaining as his portrayal in the musical. The Frenchman’s fast-paced, international life and his time in Washington’s army take center stage, which enables us to meet a cast of famous characters through his eyes, including Thomas Jefferson, Marie Antoinette, and Benjamin Franklin. If you don’t mind a little creative license, try these historical fiction books you won’t be able to put down.
12. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (2012)
Hands down one of the best biographies, The Black Count won the Pulitzer in 2013. Famed novelist Alexandre Dumas (known for The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers) drew inspiration from the life of his father, Alex Dumas. What wasn’t included in his stories was that his father was the son of a slave—a Black man in a White world. Born in 1762 in Saint-Domingue, the young Alex moved to France, where he rose in the ranks to become a highly regarded general. His story is arguably more fascinating than his son’s fiction.
13. Wong Kar-Wai: Auteur of Time by Stephen Teo (2005)
With the popularity of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, audiences took notice of star Tony Leung. Those in the know recognize Leung from his early work, most notably films like Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046, all directed by the iconic Wong Kar-Wai. In this first book-length biography of the legendary director, readers get a behind-the-scenes look at Hong Kong cinema, as well as insight into Kar-Wai’s influences and how he redefined the film industry.
14. Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith (2012)
If you can’t get enough of The Crown on Netflix, this biography will be your cup of tea. This is author Sally Bedell Smith’s third biography of a member of the royal family, and her expertise in making connections and presenting research shines. Smith takes us into the meeting rooms, social activities, and international tours that fill Queen Elizabeth II’s life. We see the effects of being constantly in the public eye and get to know a seemingly untouchable person on a human level, reminding us that she was once just a young girl who took on a monumental responsibility.
15. A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming (2017)
Some biographies interest us because we are fans of their famous subjects. Other biographies grip us because they show us untold stories we could only otherwise imagine. This biography of Doaa Al Zamel, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, makes vivid a crisis that often feels too overwhelming to comprehend. Her story is one of too many like it, and her humanity makes it impossible to look away. If you haven’t read this book yet, start a book club and spread the word. This is a story that needs to be heard.
16. Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster by Stephen L. Carter (2018)
Another biography written about a little-known but immensely impactful person, this book is written with an insider’s view and nuanced objectivity. You may not have heard of Eunice Hunton Carter, but after reading this biography written by her grandson, you won’t be able to forget her. The granddaughter of slaves and one of the first women to graduate Smith College with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in just four years, Carter was the only prosecutor sharp enough to bring down Lucky Luciano, a dangerous Mafia boss.
17. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (2015)
This is not your typical biography. It’s peppered with quotes, illustrations, anecdotes, and pop culture references. In fact, it might remind you of something you’d scroll through on the Internet. That’s because co-author Knizhnik created the wildly popular Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr. Co-author Carmon interviewed Justice Ginsburg for MSNBC (and sat down with her to fact-check this book), so you can be sure you’re getting well-researched facts as well as entertainment in this bestseller. A perfect read for anyone who misses RBG, may she rest in peace and power. You’ll also love these Ruth Bader Ginsburg quotes on women, equality, and justice.
18. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd (2003)
Writer Zora Neale Hurston’s colorful life and personality make for excellent reading. Hurston was a prolific author who created boundary-pushing work in just about every genre, and her biography also touches upon important figures and events. With friendships that included Langston Hughes, rivals that included Richard Wright, and a life span that included the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the civil rights movement, Hurston’s life was as full and complex as her novels.
19. The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)
This book remains the gold standard for modern biographies. 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 ever 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. If poems pique your interest, pick up a few of the best poetry books of all time, too.
20. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)
This 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, to be 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.
21. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2001)
Written 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 and 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.
22. John Adams by David McCullough (2002)
It’s easy to see why critics love this Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of our second president. 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 through his presidency and marriage to Abigail. While it focuses on politics, it’s also a love story and a study of human nature and loyalty. It was so well received that it spawned the critically acclaimed HBO series of the same name. Here are more book-to-movie adaptations that are worth a watch.
23. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)
Reading this article on a smartphone? You likely have Steve Jobs to thank for that. 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. 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.
24. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (2001)
Not so much a singular biography as a collection of biographies, this book profiles the hardships that three sharecropper families faced during the Great Depression. Along with photographer Walker Evans’ 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.
25. Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman (2010)
Another collection of biographies, this book is the follow-up to Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein’s groundbreaking and genre-breaking memoir about her transformation from man to woman. In this sequel, Bornstein and co-author S. Bear Bergman turn our attention to the next generation of artists, creatives, and professionals across the trans spectrum. Through essays, conversations, and art, we get to see some of the beautiful diversity in the trans community. To learn more about gender identity, find out exactly what non-binary means—and why it’s important to understand.
26. Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nelly Bly by Deborah Noyes (2017)
In 1887, Pittsburgh-based reporter Nelly Bly feigned insanity at a boarding house so that she would be involuntarily committed to a 10-day stay at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and could report on the horrific conditions present at the clinic. Bly’s exposé, aptly titled 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 and it’s one of the best books for teens and tweens, its focus on sexism in the workplace, mental health, and gender norms make it a must-read for adults, too.
27. Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert (1991)
This biography 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.
28. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (2007)
Yes, Albert Einstein was a genius, and plenty has already been written about the physicist’s Nobel Prize-winning scientific discoveries. Where this book 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 his colleagues.
29. Eleanor Roosevelt: The Early Years by Blanche Wieson Cook (1992)
The first of a three-volume set by noted history professor Blanche Wieson Cook, this biography looks at the woman who was often referred to as the greatest First Lady the United States has ever had. In this 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.
30. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2020)
Are you a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton? If so, this biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow is a must-read. The book—jokingly referred to as “Hamiltome” because of its hefty size—chronicles the life of this Founding Father. 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. It 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. Next, switch gears and check out some of the best fiction books to read this year.