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Best Biographies Of All Time: 8 Essential Reads

By July 15, 2019No Comments

(This post originally appeared on Forbes)

I recently listed some of my favorite history books of all-time and because people are the most interesting aspects of history, I included a few great biographies of significant historical figures like Malcolm X, Winston Churchill, Julius Caesar, and others.

But there are so many others Here are some of the best biographies of all time, many of which are written to inspire you to take risks in business—and in life.

The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy by Charles R. Morris 

What powered American industry, from the devastating aftermath of its civil war, to become the catalyst behind the world largest economy within decades? The answer has much to do with four men: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gould and Morgan. These industrialists, financiers, railroaders and oil tycoons became as big and wealthy as America itself, and along the way paved the road for what is today the laws, regulations and infrastructure of our modern markets. I enjoyed this book as not just a biography of these four men, but as an economic history of the United States during one of its most tumultuous eras.

War and Peace: FDR’s Final Odyssey by Nigel Hamilton

Nigel Hamilton’s acclaimed trilogy (which is available as a three-part boxed set) ends with this volume that happened coincide with the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. This book makes me think of perhaps my favorite presidential biography of all time: Truman by David McCullough. While many under-appreciated Truman during his term in office, today’s readers of McCullough’s 1992 biography will truly understand how he capably overcame the enormity of the challenges he faced and the impact his leadership has on our society today. But as Hamilton’s FDR trilogy makes clear, many of Truman’s successes (and failures) or due to what he inherited from Roosevelt.

Mozart: A Life by Peter Gay

Is it possible to summarize the life of the world’s arguably greatest composer in just 160 pages? Peter Gay, a historian and previous National Book Award winner, pulls it off expertly, with a quick, engaging and informative narrative that not only digs into the nature and personality of the musical genius but also gives a great background of the economic and political times that influenced his life and his work. Gay 1999 biography takes pains to debunk some of the myths surrounding Mozart’s life (no, he wasn’t poisoned by a rival composer and, no, he wasn’t buried in a pauper’s grave).  This book isn’t a deep dive or an expanded narrative. But for me, it provided all the information I wanted to learn about a musician whose works have helped me navigate my way through the mundane work—I am an accountant, after all—of my professional life.

Anthony Bourdain Remembered by CNN

I’ve been interested in Anthony Bourdain—who tragically took his own life in 2018—long before he became a nationally known TV star of the hit CNN series “Parts Unknown.” I didn’t love reading Kitchen Confidentialhis first and most famous book—simply because of all the crazy stories of drug use and partying that went on behind the scenes at the restaurants where he worked. I enjoyed it because I like to go to restaurants and I’m curious—from a business and creative standpoint—about how they work. But it’s Bourdain’s legacy that’s considered in Anthony Bourdain Remembered, a bestseller released just last month compiling memories and anecdotes from his fans, friends, and colleagues at CNN.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore 

Montefiore’s 2003 biography of Stalin is about a man who lived with death every single day of his life to become the leader of millions and an infamous reminder of what can happen when the wrong leaders rise to power. But as the book explains—in great and sometimes gory detail—he achieved that power through many murderous and violent ways. More interestingly, Montefiore provides countless examples of how Stalin befriended his fellow politicians, party members and others only to abandon (and oftentimes eliminate them) in pursuit of his goals. Can a ruthless monster rise to the top and stay there his entire life? This book shows how it’s possible.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow 

With all due respect to the hit musical—which is fantastic—the book it’s based on is better.  That’s because Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography more deeply describes Hamilton’s days as a soldier under Washington’s command and the complexities involved in financing a young nation’s growth and creating a central bank amidst the monumental political and financial challenges of the day. Hamilton—the nation’s most famous immigrant to some—never held elected office. But his influence on our lives today is still very much apparent.

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro 

Robert Caro’s latest entry in his series of LBJ biographies (there were three previous volumes) covers from approximately 1958 to 1964 and explains in great detail how Johnson—the powerful leader of the Senate who so aspired to the presidency —rose out of the political wilderness of the vice-presidency to use the skills he learned in over 30 years of government service to rescue the country from a devastating presidential assassination and guide it back to stability.

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson 

Walter Isaacson—the former editor of Time, best known for his other great biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs—not only illuminates some of da Vinci’s greatest artistic works, but also reveals the genius behind this self-taught, self-confident entrepreneur. Leonardo was constantly promoting his artistic abilities to wealthy benefactors and had the creativity to come up with flying machines and giant crossbows while studying anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry. Few geniuses like this have ever walked the earth.

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