I’m a lover of biographies. Reading the life stories of others is one way I make sense of my own. Leadership fascinates me and reading about those who have led well makes for an interesting study, and it accentuates the importance of the leaders we choose, whether in government, education, business, or as faith leaders. Some of these biographies have been among my most memorable reads, a few in recent years, many going back twenty years or more. Once again, re-reading them could occupy me for many months. Most are big books, and some stretch into multiple volumes.
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Blight captures both the sheer perseverance of Douglass in the pursuit of freedom and justice for his people, and the eloquence that was his gift.
Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4 volumes in print, one still being written). I hope Robert Caro lives long enough to complete his study of the life of Johnson, and that I live long enough to re-read the series.
Ron Chernow, Grant. Chernow has given us a series of great biographies. Here he gives us one of the man who struggled in civilian life, was a magnificent and focused military leader, and a great president whose reputation was marred by those around him.
Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci. A magnificent study in print and image of this profligate genius. One wonders what he might have accomplished with greater discipline and focus.
Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. There was deep conviction and principle behind the gentle greatness of Mr. Rogers that drew children and adults to listen to him.
Nancy Koester, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life. In a well-researched work, Koester traces Stowe from her Calvinist youth to her years at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, where she saw so much of what she wrote in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, galvanizing her abolitionist work. She became the most successful American writer of the 19th century, later moving away from the Calvinism of her youth.
William Manchester (with Paul Reid on volume 3), The Last Lion. Whether this is the best history of Churchill, it is certainly the best written.
David McCullough, John Adams and Truman. Each of these presidents followed one far more famous, yet McCullough brings them out of the shadows and helps us appreciate the unique gifts each were to American history.
Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt. Morris tells the story of this larger than life figure magnificently from the somewhat frail boy who heeded his father’s encouragements to build up his strength, to the cowboy in the west, the Rough Rider, the president who invented the bully pulpit, and the world explorer who nearly lost his life in the Amazon.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. He chronicles Kennedy’s growth from the McCarthy era to his work as Attorney General under his brother, the agony of the Johnson years, and his final presidential campaign cut short by an assassin’s bullet. One of his greatest moments was his on-the-spot response to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., facing an angry crowd in Indianapolis.
Great biographies to me combine the singular greatness of the person with writing that accentuates that greatness, while rendering a true account, and not a hagiography of their lives. Each of these biographies did that for me. I think they will for you. More than once. If I’ve left one off the list you think worth a re-read, I’d love to hear about it. It has to be worth at least one read!