Great biographies?
April 10, 2005 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I want to read great biographies. Which are the best?

I want scholarly biographies with reliable sources and footnotes. I am particular to creative people working in the arts or sciences. I don't much care for generals and kings, though a great biographer could change my mind. I want to learn about what they created, not just about where they lived and who they loved. But above all, I want great writing. If there are several biographies of a person, I want to know which are best.
posted by pracowity to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
pais's subtle is the lord was hailed as an excellent biography of einstein although i found it really hard going (i mention it because it has a very good reputation and addresses the science involved at a professional level so gives you a very good idea of "what they created"; i fact, i should try reading it again).

hodge's alan turing - the enigma a great read and gets the politics right. a brilliant tribute to someone who should be (is, i guess) a geek hero figure. it covers the maths quite well (although nothing like as throroughly as pais covers the physics), but its great strength is portraying a gay genius in a direct, sympathetic manner.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:33 AM on April 10, 2005

I don't know whether you'd consider these as meeting your criteria, but this one on Harry Houdini is pretty good, I thought. I also enjoyed Jim Derogatis's "Let It Blurt", on Lester Bangs
posted by Decani at 7:40 AM on April 10, 2005

Aldous Huxley : A Biography by Sybille Bedford is a really good book about one of the greatest writers and thinkers of 20th century. On the same topic, This Timeless Moment: A Personal View of Aldous Huxley by his second wife Laura Archera Huxley is an interesting book too. If you haven't read much Huxley, start with This Timeless Moment. But Bedford's book is more encyclopedic of Aldous' entire life.

Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth is a life altering book for almost everyone that reads it.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:10 AM on April 10, 2005

Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin, a comparative biography of two of the great dictators of the 20th century.
posted by SPrintF at 8:26 AM on April 10, 2005

My favorite (mostly because I am a sociologist, and like to read about sociologists) is Max Weber: A Biography, writen by his widow Marianne Weber.

Here is Max's wiki, so you can get your feet wet.
posted by Quartermass at 8:30 AM on April 10, 2005

I've enjoyed all these:

Sylvia Nasar's biography of mathematician John Nash, "A Beautiful Mind."
Ray Monk's biography of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, "The Duty of Genius."
And another vote for Andrew Hodge's biography of Alan Turing.

I'm on the look-out for a good biography of Edison, if anyone has any recommendations.
posted by carter at 8:39 AM on April 10, 2005

Robert Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is absolutely fascinating.

My Life as a Radical Lawyer by Bill Kuntsler is not a greatly written work, but it really manages to capture the civil rights struggle from a perspective one doesn't usually read.

I've read three biographies of Vlad the Impaler (all serendipitously) and Radu Florescu's is well-sourced and keeps your attention.

The Forgotten Soldier is not about a general or king, just your common German soldier during World War II. The story is not all that common to read.

While not a standard biography, The Marriage Diaries of Robert & Clara Schumann, from an era where couples kept such things, tend to blow the whole Schumann as loonie idea into proportion.

I'll be honest, Miles by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe has one source, Miles Davis, and it's not that reliable. However, his embellishments and Troupe's poor editing don't mess up the anecdotes, which are key to any jazzer's life. And there are some great ones, especially Davis and Bird in the back of a taxi.
posted by Captaintripps at 8:48 AM on April 10, 2005

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as transcribed by Alex Hailey) was required reading at my high school, with good reason. Though it's practically pop-culture lit now, I'd still highly recommend it.
posted by skyboy at 9:00 AM on April 10, 2005

Oh, and since you expressed an interest in creative figures, here are two highly visual books -- which I consider to be "biographies," but you might disagree:

Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist
The Journey is The Destination: the Journals of Dan Eldon
posted by skyboy at 9:06 AM on April 10, 2005

Frida by Hayden Herrera is a good biography of Frida Kahlo and an excellent introduction to her works. There's more about her love life than about her political beliefs but since Frida Kahlo's painting is deeply personal it may not be such a problem.
posted by elgilito at 9:07 AM on April 10, 2005

William Manchester's two books on Churchill. Manchester died before completing the last volume, but the first two are well worth reading on their own.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 9:08 AM on April 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

The two I'm going to be working at are:

Blake by Peter Ackroyd
David Cairns' two volume biography of Hector Berlioz
posted by Jongo at 9:13 AM on April 10, 2005

John Adams or Truman, by David McCullough.
posted by nj_subgenius at 9:31 AM on April 10, 2005

...taking under advisement the exceptions to your rule. I'd probably stick with John Adams.
posted by nj_subgenius at 9:34 AM on April 10, 2005

A couple of previous threads on similar topics: 1, 2.
posted by pmurray63 at 9:36 AM on April 10, 2005

Literary Outlaw on William Burroughs is my all time favorite.

This autobiography by Robert Evans, former head of Paramount Pictures, is an inspiring read.

And for complete, unadulterated page-turning awe, try Heroes and Villains, Steven Gaines' extraordinary biography of The Beach Boys - you'll read it again and again....
posted by forallmankind at 9:42 AM on April 10, 2005

Richard Ellman's biography of Yeats is quite good.
posted by josh at 10:00 AM on April 10, 2005

The Power Broker : Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro is an impressively well-researched study of the man who shaped New York City and Twentieth Century America (as an all-powerful unelected official). Caro's biographies of Lyndon Johnson are also excellent. I also enjoyed Peter the Great by Robert Massie. A non-fiction story told better than most historical fiction.
posted by Duck_Lips at 10:00 AM on April 10, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm reading Claire Tomalin's biography of Samuel Pepys, which takes you around and through and past his diaries, and it's fantastic.
posted by altolinguistic at 11:06 AM on April 10, 2005

Ellman's biography of Joyce is also essential.

Not anywhere as definitive, but still quite enjoyable: Stephen Greenblatt's recent bio of Shakespeare, Will in the World (besides being a very engaging read, his bibliographic notes are quite handy), and Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendor, which is a social history of a specific moment in Viennese history through the prism of the last months of Crown Prince Rudolph (arguably the only "good," modern-thinking Hapsburg) leading up to his suicide.
posted by scody at 11:14 AM on April 10, 2005

This isn't as hifalutin' as many of the other suggestions, but I'm a simpleminded pop culture sort of a fellow...

The biography I've enjoyed more than any other is George Burns' book about his wife, Gracie: A Love Story. It's funny, it's romantic, and it's touching. It's a great profile of the comedienne and of show business life during the days of vaudeville and old time radio. I laughed throughout the book, and cried at the end. Highly recommended if you like entertainment biographies, comedy, and a story of true love.
posted by NewGear at 11:38 AM on April 10, 2005

Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth is a life altering book for almost everyone that reads it.

Sure was for me.
posted by jragon at 11:49 AM on April 10, 2005

The Forgotten Soldier is not about a general or king, just your common German soldier during World War II. The story is not all that common to read.

Spoiler- some claim this is fiction. Doesn't matter, it's still first rate.

Scholarly and great writing? Hm....

For good writing, try Paul Fussell's The Anti-Egoist a biography about Kingsley Amis. For that matter, read Amis's own memoirs.

A.L. Rowse on William Shakespeare. Wonderful writing, very full of himself. Compare and contrast with Greenblatt
posted by IndigoJones at 12:01 PM on April 10, 2005

How about something different?

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd is stunningly well written and a spellbounding tale of London.
It comes highly recommended.
posted by ruelle at 12:05 PM on April 10, 2005

While you're reading Richard Ellman on Joyce and Yeats, be sure not to forget his biography of Oscar Wilde. And a second for Claire Tomalin's biography of Pepys, which is a terrific read. I'm a fan of Robert Blake's Disraeli, which was recently reissued in paperback.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:27 PM on April 10, 2005

I second the Caro bio of Johnson. I picked one up the other day when I was waiting around the hospital, and it kept my attention the whole time despite the fact that 1) I have no interest in Johnson 2) I wasn't alive when he was.
posted by drezdn at 1:20 PM on April 10, 2005

I second the William Manchester bio of Churchill. Not just my favorite biography but among my favorite books.
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:00 PM on April 10, 2005

I submit Graham Chapman of Monty Python - A Liars Autobiography although it is neither a biography nor scholarly. But it is the story of a creative man and uniquely written/constructed as well as being the best autobiography I have read. No appreciation of Monty Python required.
posted by meech at 5:23 PM on April 10, 2005

Barbara Tuchman has written two lovely biographies:

Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945

A Distant Mirror: the calamitous 14th century

Both of these books are history as biography -- and consequently a little richer in context than many biographies. I'm currently reading William Manchester's biography of MacArthur and it's a plod because of too much emphasis on personality and not enough on historical context.

Hodges' biography of Alan Turing is excellent. One of the best biographies I've ever read. Understanding Turing's theory of computability is pretty damn important to understanding what computers can and can't do.

I'm linking the titles to the best used book metasearch on the web.
posted by warbaby at 6:08 PM on April 10, 2005

I don't know if you are familiar with any of Patrick White's work but if you are this is the book you need to read - or read it anyway then read some Patrick White.
posted by tellurian at 6:26 PM on April 10, 2005

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. He's a great storyteller, he meets and describes all kinds of interesting people, plus he gives you a good survey of Hindu metaphysics to boot.
posted by alms at 6:42 PM on April 10, 2005

The classic American theater autobiography is Act One, by Moss Hart.

For literature, At Random, the memoir of Bennett Cerf of Random House.

For music, an amazing book more in my own time frame, Papa John, by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:24 PM on April 10, 2005

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, which is physicist Richard Feynman's autobiography, is hilarious. Some great stories from inside the Manhattan Project, and his lockpicking adventures are legendary. If you read it, you'll enjoy it- that's a promise.
posted by gsteff at 9:37 PM on April 10, 2005

Brian Boyd's two-volume Vladimir Nabokov (1990-1) is compulsive reading. At least for me. It's probably the most successful treatment of a novelist's life and work that I know of.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:35 AM on April 11, 2005

I quite enjoyed Katharine Graham's autobiography Personal History. Made me wish I had known her.
posted by blueberry at 3:28 AM on April 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

If you want to read about the life and works of a true American literary genius, read "Walt Whitman: A Life" by Justin Kaplan. Excellent.
posted by nancoix at 8:53 AM on April 11, 2005

Response by poster: A thousand thanks to everyone.
posted by pracowity at 6:48 AM on April 12, 2005

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