More book recommendations: biographies

Yet again, I ask for book recommendations. This time, I want some good biographies.

I generally don’t like studying modern history (to me, 500 CE on) so I figured reading biographies of people from this time would be a good way to go. I’d ideally like a biography that is written for a popular audience, that has good narrative flow, and that’s about an important person in politics or science. Not so much from the past 50 years or so, though - I do sort of know what’s been happening. If you have one you think I’d like that doesn’t fall under those criteria, heck, tell me anyway.


One of my all time favorites is The First Elizabeth by Carolly Erickson. It reads like a novel.

She has others like Her Little Majesty (Queen Victoria), Mistress Anne (Anne Bolyn), Great Catherine (Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia) and To the Scaffold (Marie Antoinette). If you’d like to read about Regency England, her Our Temptestuous Day is rather good.

Hope this helps!

There’s Nancy Mitford’s bio of Louis XIV, *The Sun King. * I’d say he was fairly important politically. She also wrote a biography of Frederick the Great, which is simply called Frederick the Great. Another book I like is *The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall * by Christopher Hibbert; it’s about the Medici dynasty in Italy. (I don’t know if that one’s still in print–I got it at a used book store. But it may be in the library.)

I’d also recommend *Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death * by Richard Marius.

I hate to keep banging on about Robert Caro in book threads, but if you’re looking for biographies of people who were important in politics in modern times, I can’t speak too highly about The Power Broker, his biography of Robert Moses, or his multivolume *The Years of Lyndon Johnson * series, of which I’ve read the second and third installments. Riveting stuff, I would never have thought I could blow through a 1,000 page-plus book so quickly.

Just to throw a small bit of curve to your request while still meeting the criteria you list, I strongly suggest:



The Professor and the Madman

both about people from more than 50 years ago, written for a popular audience, wonderfully written narrative flow. These two were two of the first of the narrative histories that have led to dozens of similar books since, like Cod: The Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. These two are really excellent - no doubt their success lit the flames of this genre. Both focus on specific individuals and their stories - you may not have heard their names before or think of them as famous, but you will respect their place in history and have a great sense of the political/business (Longitude) and critical thinking/etymology (Madman) fields.

They’re great.

I see no curve, those look fantastic! And thanks to the rest of you as well; my online book wishlist is growing by leaps and bounds.

Cool. If you end up reading them, it will be interesting to hear what you think. I have ended up reading a ton of this type of book - I like my non-fiction to be readable and educational - but most don’t come close to the quality of these.

Simply because you liked the first two recommendations, I will offer a couple of others that are a bit outside your criteria:

Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk - if you are just a little bit of a fan of music and bands like the Ramones, this is an incredibly readable history of how punk evolved from bands like the Velvet Underground, The Stooges and the Doors into the 70’s phenomenon it became. I couldn’t put it down. Maybe not “more than 50 years old” but worth it.

Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad - again, not old at all, but a fascinating look at “indie/alternative” music before it became the mainstream rock genre when Nirvana crossed over. Organized with each chapter on a different band that was key to indie’s development. I was a mainstream music teen / college kid in the 80’s and had no clue this stuff was going on, yet it is the music that influences all of the bands I like now. Azerrad is a wonderful writer - you don’t have to know a thing about these bands to find their stories fascinating.

Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough - do a search on MoR threads here - they have a huge following. Incredibly well-researched and fact-based - the author is rumored to have spent 12 years doing research before writing the first book and has one of the largest Roman history libraries outside of public/academic institutions - they are incredibly readable. If you can get comfortable with the tongue-twisting Roman names (write 'em down and take notes - just like with Russian novels and 100 Years of Solitude), you get more of an education about Roman times and the key players than anything else I’ve read. The first book is The First Man in Rome.

All great books.

I’ve read the Masters of Rome, I loved it. It was very historically accurate except for the places where she deliberately changestraditional views to further her view of the plot (says the Roman historian :wink: )But it’s fictional, are most of your other recommendations non-fiction?

The other stuff is fiction - I went with MoR because of its fact-based historical foundation; just thought you’d dig it. Sounds like you did, in which case I would also strongly recommend Gates of Fire by Pressfield and I, Claudius by Graves - again, historical fiction but very well-written and based in fact…

Well, crap - I meant NON-fiction :smack:

The other stuff I recommended - except for MoR, I, Claudius and Gates of Fire - are all NON-fiction…