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10 of the Most Compelling Biographies You’ll Ever Read

10 of the Most Compelling Biographies You’ll Ever Read

A well-written biography is an excellent way to get to know influential people on a personal level. They provide a window into our heroes’ minds and help us understand how they came to be the person they are, how they make decisions in a crisis, and any rituals or habits they have. These are opportunities we wouldn’t normally have, because let’s face it, we’re never going to get to spend a weekend with Abraham Lincoln (dead) or the Dalai Lama (way too busy).

Biographies are also more apt to avoid the classic pitfalls of autobiographies, as any good biography’s agenda stops with providing a journalistic look at someone’s life. Autobiographies can often devolve into baseless self-congratulations and only teach you someone is conceited, which we all assumed anyway. But a biography often gives you a more genuine look into someone’s life and, provided the subject is interesting enough, the ride can get pretty wild.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

By Ashlee Vance

You’ve undoubtedly heard his name, though it’s hard to know which is more famous, Elon Musk or PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity. Elon Musk is one of the most prolific inventors and innovators of our time, and this New York Times best-selling biography from award winning business writer-turned-biographer Ashlee Vance tells the story about Musk we’ve all been waiting for.

Vance goes to painstaking lengths to trace Musk’s back to his childhood, and all the way up through his emergence as the world’s foremost entrepreneur and digital revolutionary. Vance had regular interviews with Musk, as well as family and friends, and even those who were closest to him during the major turning points throughout his life. And while it is an authorized biography, Musk had zero control over what went into the book, making this one of the most honest looks at a public figure you can get. If you want to know more about the single brightest mind of our lifetime, this is the book to read. $12

Churchill: A Life

By Martin Gilbert

A mind boggling effort went into the writing and compiling Churchill: A Life. So much so that Churchill: A Life is actually the abridged version of a much larger eight-volume series on Churchill’s history. Critics and fans alike say that even abridged, it is the definitive biography of Churchill—his childhood, adolescence, military career, work as a journalist, political leadership, etc.—anyone has written and will ever write. That’s high praise for a subject who’s partly famous for how much he liked to write about himself, so Martin Gilbert must have something special on his hands. $28

Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir

By Linnie Marsh Wolfe

When we think of wildlife conservation, we mostly think of modern corporations leading the way—The North Face, Patagonia, and L.L. Bean are some of our favorites. What we don’t realize is that when those companies need inspiration, they look to men like John Muir, the father of environmental philosophy, modern naturalism, ecological preservation, and founder of the Sierra Club, the largest American conservation organization. Muir was one of those dudes that live and breathed the outdoors because he understood how important they were to our American way of life, even if we forgot. In Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir, readers are offered an in-depth look at one of America’s most ardent conservationists and early explorers. The book was originally published in 1945 and based largely on biographer Linnie Marsh Wolfe’s personal interviews with people who knew and worked directly with Muir himself. $21

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

By Candice Millard

We could write an entire roundup dedicated solely to excellent Teddy Roosevelt biographies, but The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey is by far the most action-packed of the lot. While there are certainly more definitive biographies out there, like Edmund Morris’ three-part series, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt, The River of Doubt perfectly encapsulates the crazy son of a bitch Roosevelt was, and the sheer balls that gained him his notoriety.

After losing the election of 1912 Teddy Roosevelt was invited on a trip to the Amazon by famous Brazilian explorer Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon. The main goal of the trip was to explore some of the yet-uncharted territory along the river, but things went awry almost immediately. They and their crew lost their canoes and equipment, they suffered starvation, endured attacks from natives, and even encountered murder among their own crew. They barely escaped with their lives, and this biography tells the story of it all. $11

Hemingway’s Key West

By Stuart B McIver

Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, is an excellent piece of writing about his formative years in Paris with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and others, including his first wife, Hadley, and son, Jack. But, for how much people talk about Hemingway and Paris, his time there was surprisingly short. He arrived in December 1921, and by April 1928, he was looking for something new. Hemingway’s Key West covers the next chapter of Hemingway’s life, which he spent drying out and warming up in Key West. It was in Key West Hemingway developed into Papa, the macho, tough, sporting gentleman the world still fondly remembers. $11

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson

By Corey Seymour and Jann S. Wenner

Hunter S. Thompson is remembered as one of country’s greatest—and craziest—writers, artists, and patriots. Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson weaves together stories directly from some of the people who knew him best, including Jack Nicholson, Sonny Barger, Jimmy Carter, Johnny Depp, Marilyn Manson, to offer the most complete biography to date on one of the world’s most prolific writers. The biography received praise for its unrelenting truth and detail about Thompson’s love life, his intimate relationship with drugs, his writing, and, yes, his suicide. $9

Into the Wild

By Jon Krakauer

In 1992, Christopher Johnson McCandless decided he wanted to live a different kind of life. The well-to-do kid from Virginia sold his possessions, gave his $25,000 of savings to charity, cut off communication with his family, and began hitchhiking across the country. He eventually arrived in Alaska, where he survived for just four months before succumbing to starvation inside an abandoned bus. On the surface, McCandless sounds like a pompous rich kid buffoon whose naïveté got him killed. But Into the Wild, the not-quite-biography of his life leading up to (and best speculation about) his journey to death, by Jon Krakauer, provides an excellent look into McCandless’s mind, why he felt the way he did about the world, and what ultimately drove him to the Alaskan wilderness. The book itself is brilliant, and the way Krakauer relates McCandless’s experiences to his own travels through the wild provides pricelessly sincere insight into man’s yearning for the wild and unknown. $9

Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry

By Paul Goldberger

If you have even a superficial interest in architecture, you’ve heard of the legendary Frank Gehry. This biography, from Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger, outlines Gehry’s life and career. What you quickly find out is Gehry was an absolutely incredible person. Not only is he respected as one of the world’s greatest modern architects—the man who literally defined an entire era of modern architecture—but he’s also a highly regarded human being. Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry goes through everything; his child, his vision in designing his now-famous home, his work on the Guggenheim, his 16-year journey through the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and much, much more. $22

The Stranger Beside Me: The Shocking True Story of Serial Killer Ted Bundy

By Ann Rule

There’s plenty of literature out there about grisly serial killer Ted Bundy, but what separates Ann Rule’s gripping biography from all the rest is that she isn’t just some regular biographer with no real connection to Bundy. She was his colleague and friend, who, over the course of several years, came to realize that her longtime friend—a man with whom she’d kept legitimate correspondence—was one of America’s most heinous and horrifying serial killers. The book is so crazy and compelling that it’s often described as more of a true crime novel than a biography, and we know you guys love true crime. $28

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century

By Peter Galassi

One of the most profound and culturally significant photographers of all time, Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t just have an incredible eye for capturing life-changing historical moments, but he was also the founder of one of the world’s most significant photography companies—Magnum. His life story starts in the bourgeois neighborhoods of Paris, and winds through the rivers of Africa, goes through some time in America, dives into the trenches on the front lines of WWII, and spends significant time in Asia. More than the history of his life and work, the book is also part photo gallery, exhibiting some of Cartier-Bresson’s lesser known photos. He wasn’t just a pioneer of candid street photography, he was one of the world’s best photographic artists—period. And Henri Cartier-Breslin: The Modern Century gives us a better look at his life than ever before. $60