Please, suggest some historical biographies for me to read

As a rule, I enjoy reading well written, historically relevant biographies and I would appreciate it if you would share some of your favorites. I tend to skip around and not focus too much on any era or culture so feel free to throw any worthwhile texts out for consideration. With that being said, prominent post World War Uno, American political and military figures are going to be among the least interesting people IMHO. Also the standard celebrity tell-all/exposé also fails to excite much interest unless they are exceptionally well sourced. I get quite enough fiction in my life as is thank you.

Do you have any good ideas for my next read?

It may help if you tell us some of the biographies you’ve enjoyed, so that we can get an idea of the kind of things you like. Autobiographies too?

Autobiographies are fair game.

I can give you a list of books that were interesting to me if needed but to be honest, I’m curious about what you consider worthwhile by your standards and interests. I’m trying to expand my perspective and it’s difficult to do that when you read my list and try to suggest more of the same. The only real guidance I can offer is that as a general rule, I’m not looking for entertainment. Sober, even dry examinations of historical eras and society from people who actually witnessed them are a better bet for me.

If you feel that a given biography was a good read for you then please share.

The Pageant of England four book series by Costain, The Last Plantagenets being the last book. Mostly biographies of all the Plantagenet Kings.

Rudy Abramson, Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891-1986

Anthony Allfrey, Man of Arms: The Life and Legend of Sir Basil Zaharoff

Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice

Duff Cooper, Talleyrand

Byron Farwell, Burton - NOTE: This is about the explorer, not the drunken sot actor

Peter Grose, Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles

Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA

George Seldes, Witness to a Century

The greatest work of biography ever written, beyond all doubt, is James Boswell’s Life of Dr Samuel Johnson.


Firstly because Johnson was an extremely interesting man. He combined several qualities rarely found in the same person:

  • He had an exceptionally brilliant, sharp, and quick intellect, and could out-argue the greatest figures of his time, leading politicians, lawyers, academics, etc.

  • He had an almost photographic memory and was extremely widely read, so that someone remarked that he was ‘a walking library’.

  • He had a wonderful sense of humour and a quick wit. He was famous for his entertaining conversation, in an age that highly valued good conversation. And it’s still entertaining today. If he were alive now, he would be on TV talk shows every day.

  • He was a good man, generous to a fault (though he never had much money), self-deprecating, caring deeply about the poor, promoting education and independence for women, strongly opposed to slavery and colonialism.

  • Last but not least, he was perhaps the world’s greatest ever genius in plain, simple, down-to-earth common sense. He had a profound and practical knowledge of human nature.

Boswell was one of Johnson’s closest friends for more than 20 years, and recorded conversations with him most of that time. Boswell himself is a brilliant and entertaining writer, and a fascinating person, well-known and respected in own time. He is sometimes misunderstood because he liked to make fun of himself.

Boswell wrote a ‘warts and all’ biography of Johnson. We see all Johnson’s faults, foibles, eccentricities, and humanity as well as his brilliance and insights. We see him at his best and at his worst. Other people at that time who knew Johnson well, uniformly agree that the picture is accurate.

Someone once said that reading the Life of Johnson is like looking through a window into the 18th century.

You see all the little details of everyday life. You are like a fly on the wall at dinners with the great and famous, casual conversations with ordinary people, journeys in carriages with Johnson, walks though the street, meals in inns.

The first part of the Life is less interesting (but still good), before Boswell met Johnson - then it becomes unputdownable.

A few samples (spoilered for length):

Bowell visits Johnson's house for the first time

He received me very courteously; but, it must be confessed, that his apartment, and furniture, and morning dress, were sufficiently uncouth.

His brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose; his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers.

But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk. …

Some gentlemen, whom I do not recollect, were sitting with him; and when they went away, I also rose; but he said to me, ‘Nay, don’t go.’

‘Sir, (said I,) I am afraid that I intrude upon you. It is benevolent to allow me to sit and hear you.’

He seemed pleased with this compliment, which I sincerely paid him, and answered, ‘Sir, I am obliged to any man who visits me.’


Rowing down to Greenwich

On Saturday, July 30, Dr. Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education.

JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.’

‘And yet, (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’

He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’

‘Sir (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’

Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare.

Dr. Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’


Johnson in his 80s inteacting with a teenage girl at tea

JOHNSON. ‘Ladies set no value on the moral character of men who pay their addresses to them; the greatest profligate will be as well received as the man of the greatest virtue, and this by a very good woman, by a woman who says her prayers three times a day.’

Our ladies endeavoured to defend their sex from this charge; but he roared them down!

‘No, no, a lady will take Jonathan Wild as readily as St. Austin, if he has three-pence more; and, what is worse, her parents will give her to him.’

Miss Adams mentioned a gentleman of licentious character, and said, ‘Suppose I had a mind to marry that gentleman, would my parents consent?’

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, they’d consent, and you’d go. You’d go though they did not consent.’

MISS ADAMS. ‘Perhaps their opposing might make me go.’

JOHNSON. ‘O, very well; you’d take one whom you think a bad man, to have the pleasure of vexing your parents! You put me in mind of Dr. Barrowby, the physician, who was very fond of swine’s flesh. One day, when he was eating it, he said, ‘I wish I was a Jew.’ ‘Why so? (said somebody); the Jews are not allowed to eat your favourite meat.’ ‘Because, (said he,) I should then have the gusto of eating it, along with the pleasure of sinning.’

Johnson then proceeded in his conversation.

Miss Adams soon afterwards made an observation that I do not recollect, which pleased him much: he said with a good-humoured smile, ‘That there should be so much excellence united with so much depravity, is strange.’

Indeed, this lady’s good qualities, merit, and accomplishments, and her constant attention to Dr. Johnson, were not lost upon him. She happened to tell him that a little coffee-pot, in which she had made his coffee, was the only thing she could call her own.

He turned to her with a complacent gallantry, ‘Don’t say so, my dear; I hope you don’t reckon my heart as nothing.’

Just about any biography by David McCullough, Truman being my favorite. Others I’ve read and enjoyed thoroughly these past couple of years are Washington: A Life, Grant and Alexander Hamilton, all by Ron Chernow; Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson; and Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts.

Buddha, by Karen Armstrong

The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick

A biography I found fascinating was Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford.

He was King of Prussia, and by far the greatest military commander of his time, winning incredible victories against huge odds, and commanding his armies in battle in person - and he was gay enough to be Queen rather than King. :smile:

He single-handedly made Prussia into a powerful and leading state from a tiny, unimportant principality. He was very liberal and progressive for his time, but also ruled as an authoritarian absolute monarch.

Yet he was a great believer in freedom of speech: “The people say what they like, and I do what I like.” But on the other hand, he was a great promoter of the rule of law. He was a great patron of the arts. He was a German who loved everything French and hated everything German.

It’s difficult to find another great historical figure so full of contradictions. But he was basically a good guy.

Nancy Mitford’s biography is serious and comprehensive, while still being highly readable.

If you’re up for a tome, consider The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood. It bills itself as a biography of a family, but it’s really centered around just two successive heads of household - Sir Edmund Verney and his son Ralph. They were a prominent English Civil War era family, and Edmund and Ralph shared one very important characteristic - they kept everything they ever wrote. Accounts, notes, people’s letters to them, their drafts of their letters to other people … reams and reams of paper. So the book draws on this incredibly rich detailed mine of information about all the actual people involved, in their own words.

Because the period involved covers an extremely tumultuous era, it’s also interesting in its own right, and Verneys are present, occasionally doing key and significant things, at various points in the Civil War. And they’re all interesting and very different people. The bulk of the book covers the best part of a century, from Edmund’s childhood up to Ralph’s death, but it doesn’t feel like it’s skimming over anything (partly because there’s A Lot of book … but when it’s a good book, that’s a good thing!)

I have three suggestions, one scientific, one historical and one from modern culture:

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World - Andrea Wulf

An impressive tale of one of history’s greatest scientific pioneers, often standing in the shadows of others and a bit forgotten, highlighting his radical theories of nature as something endlessly interwoven and interdependent. Very exciting read.

Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504 - Laurence Bergreen

All the contradictions of the life of a genius, charlatan and tyrant who was one of the single people in history who caused the most radical changes to mankind.

Life - Keith Richards

I’ve read many (auto)biographies of musicians/bands, but this is the most exciting and most of all, funniest of them all. And you really can hear the Keef we all know and love in between all those lines, no doubt that there wasn’t much polishing and editing to his very own tale.

And the Band Played On A history of the HIV pandemic

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide by Robert Jay Lifton A study on how Doctors who were trained to heal could lead a killing machine and the psychological ways that they adapted to their task.

there was a series of presidential biographies put out a few years ago by various authors and I found the Gerald ford one to be interesting especially his friendship with JFK and was just handed a mess he couldn’t fix (much like carter 4 years later)

here ya go :

One of the most charming biographies ever written is Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. (It’s also not very long.)

You can read or download it free at Gutenberg:

oh ignore the price you can get the book for 2 bucks for less …

Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, is highly regarded and justifiably so.

One downside is Caro decided to focus on certain emblematic turning points in Johnson’s life. So there are some portions of Johnson’s life which are covered in great detail while other portions are passed over lightly.

Another downside is the work’s length. It’s very readable but it’s not a short work. It’s currently four volumes long and it’s intended to have a concluding fifth volume.

And also Caros Master Builder a bio of Robert Moses. One of the best books I have read.

Not a biography in the strictest sense, but you might enjoy Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, sort of a bio/travelogue where Tony Horwitz retraces Cook’s travels in the present day while recounting the Captain’s globe-trotting career.

I’m currently working my way through Mad Madge, a biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle in the mid-17th century and one of the earliest women to publish their writings under their own name. Cavendish is best known for her proto-scifi work The Blazing World.

The biography is very much a scholarly work but a well-written one, by which I mean that it’s fascinating (and not remotely dry) but extremely information-rich, covering not just life events but giving the social, economic, political, medical, etc contexts. I find I’ve had to stop every half dozen pages to think about what I’ve just read.

(One of the things that I’ve found most striking is that, even though Margaret was William Cavendish’s second wife and it was one of those marriages of minor nobles for social reasons, the two remained genuinely, deeply in love with each other for their entire marriage and William was incredibly supportive of her writing at a time when respectable women simply didn’t do that sort of thing.)

I came in to trumpet this book. Certainly the best biography I have ever read.