There’s a lot that goes into writing a successful and poignant biography: honesty, detailed research, clear context, empathetic writing, and so much more.
Biographies hold a unique place in the world of nonfiction. The best biography books often appeal to people who may not even explicitly care about the book’s subject.
It’s all about human connection. Learning the historical, cultural, religious, political, economic and social contexts behind a person’s life is satisfying, but connection is what sells it.
For some of us, we read biography books to become intimate with historical figures we admire. For others, it’s simply about the act of connecting with someone through their story.
The Best Biography Books to Read Now
With all of that in mind, you’ll find here a wide range of the best biography books.
These are biographies about writers, artists, musicians, political figures, scientists, and more.
When composing a list of the best biography books, variety is essential. Variety of work, ethnicity, gender, and class.
And, with variety at the forefront, here is a selection of the best biography books of all time.
Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
Peter Ackroyd is a huge name in the world of nonfiction, having written celebrated history books and biography books about British history.
Ackroyd has written an entire history of England, and another of London. And here, he dedicated five hundred pages to The Bard himself: William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is widely considered the most influential writer in history.
His plays are studied in schools around the world, and people make full careers out of being Shakespearean scholars, actors, directors, and more.
A legacy like The Bard’s inevitably leads to speculation, conspiracy, and more. Against all of that is Peter Ackroyd’s biography: a full and immersive journey through Shakespeare’s life.
Ackroyd has spent time researching and detailing the period in which Shakespeare lived.
London’s religious and political dynamics, Shakespeare’s own family and education, and the world of English theatre at the time. All of this and so much more is laid bare here.
While nobody will ever know every detail of Shakespeare’s life, Ackroyd has done his due diligence when it comes to piecing together a vivid picture of who The Bard was.
An incredible feat of biography writing from one of England’s best-loved historians, and one of the best biography books you’ll ever read.
Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith
So much has been written about Vincent Van Gogh, and deservedly so.
Multiple documentaries have been made; museums, galleries, and interactive exhibitions have been built; songs have been sung; and books have been written.
The 19th century Dutch painter was a revolutionary of the craft, a legend of post-impressionism, and his life was a truly fascinating one.
His life is well-known, and remembered with as much intrigue as his art. Van Gogh was the original struggling artist, the one who began the toxic trend of seeing depression as a mark of genius.
Deeply troubled, Van Gogh lived a life of tragedy as much as one of beauty. And all of that is masterfully captured in Van Gogh: The Life.
Working alongside Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have brought us nearly a thousand pages of incredible research and writing.
Van Gogh: The Life is the definitive work of biography on the genius Dutch painter. A truly remarkable book, and one of the very best biography books ever written.
Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings
Ida B. Wells was a hero. Born in 1862, she was a great feminist and a leader of the Black civil rights movement.
Wells dedicated her entire life to the fight for equality within the USA; part of that fight was being a founding member of the NAAPC.
As a teacher and journalist, Wells used every skill available to advance the movement for racial equality forward. And all of that (and more) is explored in this immense biography.
Focussing less on the personal and more on the political, Ida: A Sword Among Lions is as much a history of American racial politics and change as it is a biography.
This is because the changes we can trace were made by Wells and her comrades, and those comrades — including her husband Ferdinand L. Barnett — are also given their due.
This is an inspiring work of nonfiction that throws into sharp relief the importance of community effort, of always fighting for change, justice, and equality.
It’s impossible to imagine what 20th century USA would have looked like without Ida B. Wells, but the changes she made were goliath, and the world should forever be grateful.
We are reminded of that over and again as we read this book and marvel at what she accomplished.
Paula J. Giddings has done Wells justice in a way that nobody else could have, and in doing so she has written one of the best biography books in American history.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin
You’ll find that many of the best biography books ever written have also inspired a huge number of great cinematic biopics, and this is one of them.
American Prometheus is the biography on which writer/director Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece Oppenheimer was based.
And while that is an excellent piece of filmmaking, it took a huge number of liberties that make American Prometheus required reading for fans of the film.
Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led the USA’s Manhattan Project during World War II, which led to the invention and production of the first atomic bombs.
All of this led to two of the darkest days in world history: the bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
American Prometheus tells the full story of Oppenheimer’s life and the Manhattan Project.
This is a biography that offers readers so much; so much more than just a life. This is a book about the USA, about war, science, politics, and more.
An astonishing work of nonfiction that stands alongside many of the best biography books ever written.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Shirley Jackson is a legendary figure within the world of gothic fiction, and of American literature in general.
A dark figure and an author of beloved gothic masterpieces such as The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the iconic short story The Lottery.
Jackson is one of many great authors and artists whose own life was as strange, dynamic, and interesting as the art she created.
And that is all proven here in Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life — one of the best biography books about an author you’ll ever read.
If you happen to have seen Josephine Decker’s excellent 2020 film Shirley, a biopic about Jackson starring Elizabeth Moss, that film was in fact not based on this biography.
Jackson saw a lot of professional success in her life, and her legacy has been fully cemented, but her personal life was far more rocky and inconsistent.
This biography goes into why that was, exactly, and how her turbulent home and family life, relationships, and mental health inspired her great works.
Biographies of authors are often as compelling as what those authors created, but that goes double for this book; one of the best biography books you should read right now.
Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera
One of the most celebrated and beloved painters of the 20th century, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo left behind an enormous legacy.
Anecdotes about her life are liberally shared by those who love her work. Her disability, her love affairs, her communist sympathies. These are all well-known facts
But in this incredible biography of her life, author Hayden Herrera has expanded on these details, stitching them into the rich and dramatic tapestry of her varied life.
This is a book that celebrates her artistic genius and her creative mind, and one that also takes time to explore the love and romances of her life.
Kahlo’s tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera is the stuff of legends, and it is given room to breathe in this biography, which paints them both in honest light.
Kahlo was a great feminist, a revolutionary, a proud communist, and a champion of the working class. All of that is explored and expanded upon here.
A wonderful exploration of the life and loves of one of the 20th century’s greatest painters, and one of the best biography books of our time.
Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross
Few individuals from across the history of rock & roll — and modern music in general — have been as memorialised as Kurt Cobain.
There are many reasons for this: the ways in which he pushed and defined genres; his outspoken aggression towards sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry.
But the most obvious reason is his mind. Cobain battled depression for all of his twenty-seven years, until it finally won and he took his own life.
And so began an enormous legacy that has been explored across multiple books and documentaries, but this one is easily the most impressive.
Heavier Than Heaven is an unapologetically honest book that peels back the layers and exposes the truth behind so many myths about the infamous grunge rock star.
You’ll unlearn things that were never true, learn things you never would have known otherwise, and come close to understanding the mind behind the art.
Through some impressive sleuthing, analysis, and good old-fashioned journalism, Charles R. Cross has given us access to the man behind the myth.
A truly wonderful book, Heavier Than Heaven should be celebrated by Nirvana fans the world over. One of the best biography books the music world has ever been gifted.
The Brontes by Juliet Barker
The Bronte sisters were three of a kind. As Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel Glass Town explored, they were creative giants right from childhood.
Penning some of the finest works of romantic and gothic fiction in the history of British literature, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne are celebrated the world over.
And then there’s Branwell, a tragic young man who quite literally painted himself out of their lives.
This family was unique, exceptional, and strange. And all of that is captured in Juliet Barker’s The Brontes, an enormous thousand-page biography of the literary sisters.
When the world of art and literature has so many enigmatic figures, it’s hard to call any one work of nonfiction a “definitive” history or biography, but this might be it for the Brontes.
Juliet Barker spent more than a decade gathering every scrap of evidence and information about these sisters and their works, in order to paint this vivid tapestry of their lives.
The ways in which Charlotte controlled and oppressed the others; the unsung beauty of Branwell’s mind; the anxiety and depression that Emily struggled with.
All of this and so much more is put on display here in one of the very best biography books you’ll ever read.
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang & Jon Halliday
Chairman Mao Zedong was one of the great villains of recent world history, and there might be nobody better to tell his story than Wild Swansauthor Jung Chang.
Chang has dedicated so much of her life to telling the political stories of 20th century China, including her dynamic work Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister.
But while that book and Wild Swans are both sweeping epic works of nonfiction that focus on multiple people, Mao is a dedicated biography of one man.
Mao’s monstrous political decisions as chairman of China were legendary, but what are far less well-known are the tactics and decisions behind them.
Mao Zedong’s laws and policies led to the most widespread and destructive famine in recorded history. But why? Questions like this are rarely asked, and even more rarely answered.
Jung Chang spent ten years of investigation to answer this, and so many even more pressing questions about Chairman Mao’s life, actions, and relationships.
Jung Chang wowed the world with Wild Swans, and then did it all over again with Mao: The Unknown Story, one of the best biography books anyone has ever written.
Bad Gays: A Homosexual History by Huw Lemmey & Ben Miller
From the Roman emperor Hadrian to the London gangster Ronnie Kray, Bad Gays offers up a selection of detailed short biographies of histories most unlovable gays.
Excellently researched and presented with real charm and wit, this is one of those rare biography books that blends the informative with the entertaining.
Amongst even the very best biography books, Bad Gays stands as something very important: a work that humanises the queer community by showing readers its darkest sides.
The breadth of subjects here is also satisfying and diverse. King James VI and I of Scotland and England, Lawrence of Arabia, and Japanese author Yukio Mishima are all explored here.
Bad Gays is a fantastic work of nonfiction, one of the most unique and best biography books of the past several years.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography by Walter Isaacson
Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy has cemented him as a unique mind within the realms of both art and science; an inventor and artist of unparalleled genius.
Placing someone on a podium that high can be dangerous and even beggar belief, but as Walter Isaacson’s biography proves, it is certainly deserved where da Vinci was concerned.
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian renaissance polymath who painted two of the best-known works of art the world has ever seen: the Mona Lisa, and the Last Supper.
But he was also someone with an unquenchable curiosity and an eye for discovery. His passions were spread across the sciences, from biology to geology.
All of this is captured and presented in this remarkable biography. This book explores how da Vinci studied all there was to study, and sought to understand the world on every level.
da Vinci was a man of curiosity and creativity, but he was also human. And this book is what really reminds us of that. It humanises this giant of art and science in a way that few books have.
Whether you’re a lover of Leonardo da Vinci or all you know about him is that he painted the Mona Lisa, this biography book has so much to offer you either way.
Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
As was the case with American Prometheus and Oppenheimer (above), The Enigma is a biography that served as the inspiration for Morten Tyldum’s biopic The Imitation Game.
Unsurprisingly, however, Alan Turing: The Enigma is less concerned with drama and tension, and more with laying bare the extraordinary mind and the tragic life of Alan Turing.
Turning is best known for cracking the “Enigma Code” used by the Nazis during World War II, an act which turned the tide of war for the entire world.
Beyond that act, however, Turing was also a pioneer of computer design and technology, most simply expressed by his infamous “Turing Test”.
But the tragedy of his life was that Turning happened to be gay at a time in British history and culture where that simple fact led to social and political prejudice.
Turning didn’t commit suicide because he was gay; he was killed by a bigoted and unjust political system that ruined the life of a genius and a hero of war.
All of this is explored in great detail in a biography that does Turning’s life justice, which is the least he deserved.
Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art by Susan Napier
Hayao Miyazaki will forever be known as one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers. A master of multiple disciplines, including art, writing, and directing.
His films, most of which have dark and intense anti-war, anti-industrial, anti-capitalistic underpinnings, are some of the 20th and 21st century’s greatest works of art.
Born during World War II, raised in a turbulent post-war Japan, his life shaped his art and his expression. And all of that is explored in wonderful detail in Susan Napier’s Miyazakiworld.
It’s no secret that Miyazaki was always a workaholic and a perfectionist, but this book demonstrates that wonderfully, as it strips back all the purpose and meaning behind the smallest choices when it comes to his art.
Every tiny nuance, every word, every detail; Miyazaki’s films were meticulously designed, and we see the cogs turning in this biography.
Miyazakiworld contextualises Japan’s animation industry for a non-Japanese audience, gives us a personal background to Miyazaki’s work and writing, and so much more.
A really amazing biography that focuses on the art of a great filmmaker, how it exists, and why it exists. One of the best biography books for film and animation fans.
Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman by Lucy Worsley
After the enormous success of her Jane Austen biography (below), historian and TV personality Lucy Worsley turns her attention to another great woman of English literature.
Agatha Christie was, and will forever be remembered as, an astonishing force of creativity within the world of literature.
Across a career longer than many human lives, Christie wrote timeless tales of murder and mystery, and brought us characters that remain beloved to this day.
But when it came to her personal life, Christie presented an image of meekness and good behaviour, which Worsley reveals was far from the truth.
There are so many facts and titbits about Christie’s life, career, and work ethic that fascinate her fans, but this brilliant biography goes so far beyond all of that.
Agatha Christie wrote many of the greatest thrillers and crime novels of all time, but she also had a wonderfully active and adventurous modern life.
All of that is explored with enthusiasm and wit by Worsley, who has clearly relished the challenge of unpacking the truth about Christie and bringing that truth to us.
Worsley is a charismatic writer and speaker, and that charisma shows in this book; one of the most humorous and best biography books of recent years.
Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix by Charles R. Cross
Charles R. Cross has written two of the best biography books about members of the “27 Club” — musicians whom we lost at the cursed age of 27.
One was the biography of Kurt Cobain (above) and the other is this: Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix was a rare example of a kind of reverse British invasion; an American prodigy who found fame and fandom in London’s rock ‘n’ roll era.
With The Jimi Hendrix Experience, he wrote and recorded three albums, and he made a name for himself as a revolutionary guitarist.
But there is so much more to his life behind the scenes. While his struggles with fame and addiction are well-documented, this biography dives so much deeper.
We learn about his tumultuous youth in Seattle and the things he truly wanted from life but rarely ever dared to mention.
Charles R. Cross has proven himself a fantastic biographer of great musicians, and the proof is here in Room Full of Mirrors.
A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
Another great biography that was given the Hollywood treatment; Sylvia Nasar’s excellent book on renowned mathematician John Nash adapted to the big screen by Ron Howard.
While that film won Howard an Academy Award for best director, it remains an adaptation and, as such, glosses over so much about Nash’s life that is important to know.
A Beautiful Mind tells the full story of John Nash, an eccentric mathematician whose chance to win a Nobel Prize was dashed because of how the world treated his schizophrenia.
As a mathematician, Nash had an enormous effect on the world of American economics, and the onset of his schizophrenia made him a compelling and fascinating person.
Nasar’s biography frames Nash’s schizophrenia in an honest light without vilifying or romanticising it, but it also doesn’t shy away from the more cruel of Nash’s actions.
For example, Nash was abusive towards his wife, unfaithful to her, and even pushed her down the stairs when she was pregnant. The film neatly glosses over these facts.
When creating a biography about a genius and a tragic figure, it’s important to humanise them and reveal the darker sides, even if they may be uncomfortable facts.
This is what makes Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind one of the best biography books of the past several decades.
Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley
Several years before writing her biography on Agatha Christie (above), historian Lucy Worsley dazzled Jane Austen fans with the fantastic Jane Austen at Home.
Jane Austen remains one of the most celebrated classic authors in the history of the English language. Her wit and social commentary is legendary.
The stories and characters of novels like Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion are beloved by bookworms, and likely always will be.
But who was the woman behind the wit? What in Austen’s life inspired such fantastic tales of family life, romance, sisterhood, class disparity, and more?
Lucy Worsley answers all of those questions, and many more, in this amazing biography that paints a vivid picture of Austen’s home life.
Here, we learn about her youth, her family, her home, her habits, her loves, and more.
This is a must-read for any Austen fan, and when it comes to literary figures, this is also one of the best biography books that exists.
Side note: I read this book before visiting Jane Austen’s house, and it wonderfully enhanced the experience.
Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones
Completely peerless, Jim Henson was one of the most unique creative minds that 20th century TV and film ever had.
Often overshadowed by his creations — The Muppets, Sesame Street, Labyrinth, and his work on Star Wars — Henson was one-of-a-kind.
It’s thanks to his work that puppets remain a part of mainstream television, for children and adults alike, and here you can learn all about his life in this excellent biography.
Henson died tragically young, at age 53, from a bacterial infection, but he accomplished so much in his life, and those accomplishments brought so much joy to the world.
The characters and worlds that he created have gone on to resonate with people of all ages for decades. The impact that his films and TV shows have had is immeasurable.
With the generous support of Henson’s family, Brian Jay Jones has been able to present us with the full life story of Jim Henson and all that he did.
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne & Tamara Payne
Few infamous public figures of American history have ever been as talked-about and obsessed over as Malcolm X.
A civil rights activist who joined the Nation of Islam while in prison as a young man, Malcolm X has fascinated many kinds of people for many reasons for several decades.
Beginning in 1990, renowned investigative journalist Les Payne worked to gather more than a hundred hours worth of interviews surrounding Malcolm X.
However, Payne died before the book was completed, and so his daughter and research partner Tamara finished their work and had it published in 2020.
The Dead Are Arising went on to win the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.
A remarkable work of investigative journalism that reveals to its readers an equally remarkable life.
Given the magnitude of Malcolm X’s life and legacy, and that of Les Payne’s own work and renown, The Dead Are Arising is a uniquely powerful biography.
When it comes to biographies built from tremendous hard work of investigative journalism, few compare to The Dead Are Arising.
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields
Author Charles J. Shields is a well-renowned biographer of American writers, and Mockingbird is his most celebrated work.
Two years after its publication, Shields even adapted Mockingbird into a version more palatable for younger readers, titled I Am Scout.
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee tells the story of one of 20th century USA’s best-known and best-loved authors.
One of the most unique and intriguing things about Lee was that she only ever wrote the one novel, and that novel is rightly considered a great American classic.
To Kill A Mockingbird is taught in schools across the US and UK to this day; it received a celebrated film adaptation; it has even been adapted to the stage with amazing results.
But who was the woman behind this true American masterpiece of a novel? Charles J. Shields answers that question with appreciation and attentiveness.