One thing that the most successful, self-made people in the world have in common is that they all, with few exceptions, claim to read a significant number of biographies for inspiration and educational purposes.
I once had a teacher who used to say that the smartest people in the world are the ones who surround themselves with people who are more intelligent than them. I absolutely agree. However, in some cases, it’s not the world leaders that we can learn the most from, but people who have struggled and yet managed to overcome even the toughest adversity. Some of the biographies and autobiographies listed below are exceptional choices for those looking for career inspiration, yet others will prove to showcase what a cruel world we live in. Regardless, they are certain to provide you with a meaningful reading opportunity.
As a writer, I read as much as I possibly can. These may not be the world’s most popular or even critically acclaimed biographies, but they are ones that I believe make a difference in the world we live in.
I hope you enjoy this list of the 30 of the top biographies every man should read. More so, I hope you’ll list some of your favorites in the comment section below.
All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt
A fairly unknown book, John Taliaferro takes us on a journey of the life of John Hay, whom in his early 20s, worked as the legal assistant to Abraham Lincoln before moving through the political chambers to William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. The book is a chronological insight into American politics and the upper echelons of society he was privileged to witness. Click here to read it.
The Diary of a Young Girl
I grew up listening to the atrocities of the Holocaust. My grandfather was a survivor and an educator to thousands around the world following his liberation. One of just two survivors in his family, he and his brother moved to Canada shortly after the war. Growing up with a constant reminder of what war can do to a man’s soul, I immersed myself in everything possible to better understand what my grandfather had gone through in his adolescent years.
The Diary of a Young Girl is the found copy of a journal kept by Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl whose family hid in the attic of gentile caregivers who hid them from the Nazis for almost two years during the war. Confined to a small attic hidden behind a bookcase, the story charts Anne Frank’s nightmarish experience and her endurance until her capture and murder in Bergen-Belsen. The diary, found years later, is a testament to a story we’ve all heard before, but one that should not be forgotten. Click here to read it.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The story of renowned poet Maya Angelou, this is the tragic, yet heartwarming story of a young girl growing up with racism in the deep south and the trials and tribulations she endured including her life changing story of being ferociously raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Despite a life full of tragedy, the story documents the freedom that Angelou found in poetry and literature. It’s an exceptional read and one that is sure to envelop you in a fit of rage and the warmth of a truly miraculous woman and her inspirational journey. Click here to read it.
Washington: A Life
The godfather of American politics, Washington has been an inspiration to policy makers and strategists around the world since becoming a public figure. In the face of adversity, Washington successfully managed to navigate some of history’s most exceptional battles and the risks associated with the formation of the world’s most powerful country. This biography is a superb choice for any reader in a leadership position. Washington is an American inspiration and a world leader who was admired for his calculated strategy. Click here to read it. Click here to read it.
A Moveable Feast
Ernest Hemingway is arguably one of history’s most treasured writers. This memoir, published a few years after his death is a study of his life as a friend, a writer, a traveler and a drunk. It’s a wonderful and satisfying read, yet due to his drunkenness one that’s sometimes difficult to follow as it scrambles from page to page. It is a glimpse into the life of one of literature’s most famed men and his relationship with the world around him from his love of Paris to his friendships with men like F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is one book that deserves to be on your book shelf. Click here to read it.
Cyropaedia: The Education of Cyrus
Xenophon was one of the lesser known students of Socrates. While many enjoy the writings of Plato, this biography of Cyrus the Great is a superb lesson in the fundamentals of human rights and the study of human culture. It’s not a very popular book, but offers far more relevant life lessons than most of the others from its time. Click here to read it.
Goodbye to All That
Robert Graves takes the time to engage readers in his childhood and the beginning of adulthood. Aside from that, what really makes this book a memorable read is his raw depiction of life in the trenches. Despite angering many people with his description of events, it remains one of the most critically acclaimed autobiographies ever written. Click here to read it.
Lives of the Caesars
Suetonius wrote this biography chronicling the lives of the 12 Caesars based on his experience working as the private secretary to the emperor Hadrian. The biography showcases all of the very colorful and blemished activities of the various Caesars from indecorous affairs to government coverups. Click here to read it.
This half-century old biography by Matthew Josephson is a rather intensely large read but well worth it if you’re looking for a historically accurate, unbiased opinion of one of the world’s most acclaimed inventors. Chronicling Edison’s work as a shrewd businessman, friendships with world leaders and the impairment that fueled his determination to succeed. Click here to read it.
Martin Amis has written a number of books, but this is probably the most interesting and ironically serious depiction of his life. In his effort to not impress the reader, he ends up doing just that and impresses a mass of critics for his unique story of his relationships, rivalries and the teeth he became so famous for. Click here to read it.
The Life of Samuel Johnson
This not-so-serious biography by James Boswell is a homage to the life of Samuel Johnson and his sharp wit and relationships. It’s a very humorous read and really shapes a new perspective of the famous lexicographer. Click here to read it.
Written by Lytton Strachey throughout much of the cataclysmic Great War, this exceptionally hilarious biography of major Victorians focuses on disparaging the global reputation and image of what many believe to be one of the most moral eras throughout history. Click here to read it.
Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American
If you’re a civil war buff, this is a must read. Written by B.H. Liddell Hart, the story details the life, successes and failures of one of the greatest military strategists of all time. Aside from historians, this book is a highly recommended pick for anyone in a leadership role who can benefit from learning the disciplined art of war. Click here to read it.
The Moon’s a Balloon
An irresistibly charming autobiography, this memoir charts the probably implausible life of David Niven during a simpler time on his journey to Hollywood to become famous. It’s a really inviting story and one that’s perfect for dreamers and schemers everywhere. Click here to read it.
The Rings of Saturn
A dark and haunting biography of W G Sebald, this memoir is a virtual tour of his journey through Suffolk and the profound intensity of the rocky hardships endured during a time of war in a nightmarish landscape. Click here to read it.
Eleanor Roosevelt Volume One and Volume Two
This riveting biography by Blanche Weisen Cook focuses on Eleanor Roosevelt’s entrance into politics during a time which past first ladies had never engaged in any serious roles while at the White House. Faced with almost insurmountable odds against her, this sharp and poignant biography details her extraordinary spirit and willingness to face adversity and criticism in an effort to shape the future of a growing country. Click here to read volume one or click here to read volume two.
The Diaries of Samuel Pepys
A haunting and hypnotic journey into the Great Fire of London, Pepys recounts his experiences during one of history’s greatest disasters and the life and relationships that were gained during a time of great suffering on the streets of London. Click here to read it.
I have long been fascinated by the spiritual and emotional journey of incarcerated men. This exceptionally long letter was written by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas charting his development as a man while confined to the harsh realities of life in prison. It’s a life-altering read from a man who has nothing and the altering priorities faced by men with just the freedom of memory and imagination. Click here to read it.
Churchill: A life
When it comes to books, for me they have to be life altering when they’re as big as this biography by Martin Gilbert. Written over the course of 25 years, this massive piece focuses on the life and understanding of Winston Churchill and the differences he made during the second World War. A bold and noteworthy leader, Churchill is to this very day, considered one of the greatest world leaders any nation has ever seen. Click here to read it.
Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters
They say that man has no clearer headspace than when he’s walking to death’s door. That’s precisely where Grant was when he compiled this autobiography. This is the final thoughts of a man who singlehandedly won the Civil War and his incredible pursuit of enemies across the lines of the battle field. If you’re curious about the regrets of a world leader and the challenges that shaped his life, this is a backdrop to what Grant personally considered his greatest achievements and his most remorseful decisions. Click here to read it.
Few companies have seen the success, subsequent failure and repeated success like Apple has. From a substantial startup at the dawn of computers to their fall as Microsoft overpowered them, Steve Jobs remained at the helm and brought them back for a monstrous renewal as one of the world’s most profitable companies in history. Walter Isaacson takes us on this journey of a man and his relentless pursuit of ingenuity. From the alienation and rivalries with business partners and competitors to a rapid failure of health which ultimately resulted in his untimely death, this biography is one that many CEOs have sitting at the front of their bookshelf. Click here to read it.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
T E Lawrence takes us on this brilliantly told story of his experience as a fighter during the Arab Revolt of 1917 as he captured Aqaba and won the Battle of Tafileh. A British sensation, Lawrence paints a picture that romanticizes the war, his relationships and the courage it took to fight for an almost unforeseeable victory. Click here to read it.
Testament of Youth
A beautiful, poignant and remarkable memorial, Vera Brittain served as a volunteer nurse in the Great War where she lost her fiancé, brother and two closest friends. In a vow to pay homage to their sacrifice, she wrote this biography of their stories in an effort to make sure they didn’t die in vain and would forever be remembered as heroes and patriots. Click here to read it.
My Family and Other Animals
Gerald Durrell is one of the world’s most well renowned naturalists and this comedic and often seemingly sensational autobiography details his early life and experiences living with the natural wildlife in the world around him. Click here to read it.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.
Ron Chernow encapsulates the life of one of the world’s most recognized moguls in this thought provoking account, not just of his role as a corporate titan, but the lessons learned in his everyday life as a family man and friend to many. Unlike the tragedy that impacts most men as they grow wealthier, Rockefeller didn’t allow money to control him, but instead took it as an opportunity to be a better man and a more giving, thoughtful and kind individual. It’s the unusual story of a man often viewed as intolerant and cruel, but surprisingly had a rather wonderful appreciation for the life around his protected bubble of wealth and power. Click here to read it.
Homage to Catalonia
George Orwell is known by many of our readers for his love of fine trousers. While this autobiography details his sense of fashion and style, it focuses more on a menacing and fearful period of his life as he fought for his wellbeing during the Civil War in Spain and the almost plaguing occurrences that seemed to follow and torment him. Click here to read it.
This is one of the most interesting reads on this list. It focuses on the lives of three generations of the Chang family during one of the most unspeakably evil periods in China’s history. It’s a story of the family of ordinary people and their lives, experiences and optimism during a tumultuous time of grief and agony. Click here to read it.
Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects
Possibly one of the most important pieces ever written, Giorgio Vasari’s biography is what many attribute to the foundation of Renaissance art history. This book is the original catalogue of the artists who mattered and because of it, has arguably caused the reputation that they managed to posthumously achieve. It vividly recants the personal lives of many of the master artists of its time and focuses on a variety of controversial accusations that are still talked about in some circles today. Click here to read it.
Plutarch’s Lives Volumes One & Two
The basis of much of Shakespeare’s work, Plutarch was one of history’s greatest writers and influenced much of Western culture as we know it. The biographies of men such as Alexander the Great, Fabius, Demosthenes, Cicero, Caesar and Pericles is full of life lessons and anecdotes that have helped to shape our society and the world we live in. Click here to read volume one or click here to read volume two.
Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office
The life of musicians has rarely been of interest to me, especially the lives of rap artists. If there’s any genre I can’t stand it’s that and I, probably shamefully, categorize them all as hooligans and ruffians. However, when it comes to stories of men who change their cards, my interest peaks and for men like Jay-Z, the ability to transform from life on the streets to life as one of the biggest music moguls of all time is something I am particularly impressed with. A great business book for the underdog, this biography by Zack O’Malley Greenburg showcases the hard work and determination it took for a borderline delinquent to turn into a philanthropist and gentleman. In the end, I give far more credit to men who achieved in the face of adversity than I do to men who lived calculated and comfortable lives. Click here to read it.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
There is no greater read than that of the story of a man who faces some of the greatest challenges and struggles but manages to pull himself up and take leadership over other troubled youth. Struggling through most of his early life, Malcolm X ended up in prison and taught himself to read using the dictionary. After finding religion in prison, he left to become one of the most iconic activists in the history of man working for civil rights before being tragically assassinated by former supporters of his movement. This, in my opinion, is one of the most tragic and yet inspiring autobiographies of all time. Well worth your attention. Click here to read it.
There are so many biographies on world leaders, corporate mavericks and ordinary individuals doing extraordinary things. In the end, I don’t believe there is any way to create an official, or even unofficial list of the best biographies ever written since the greatness of a story can only be determined by the reader and we all have different interests.
The goal of this particular list is simply to introduce you to a few books that perhaps you haven’t read yet and might find interest or inspiration in. If you haven’t already done so, have a look at our list of the 30 books every man should read.
What’s your favorite biography?