13 Illuminating Biographies of Notable Figures

If you want to get inside the mind of a noteworthy figure from history, one of the best things you can do is pick up a good biography. The illuminating works featured here delve into the lives of scientists, musicians, and more, giving you a full picture of how these influential people lived. This video was made with Ezvid Wikimaker.

Biographies: Our 13 Picks

Title Author
1. Tesla David J. Kent
2. Einstein's Greatest Mistake David Bodanis
3. Beethoven Jan Swafford
4. Here We Are Now Charles R. Cross
5. Clive Sean Parnell
6. Joss Whedon: The Biography Amy Pascale
7. John Paul the Great Peggy Noonan
8. Dream Boogie Peter Guralnick
9. Marmee and Louisa Eve LaPlante
10. Kissinger's Shadow Greg Grandin
11. The Real Jane Austen Paula Byrne
12. The Amateur Edward Klein
13. The Pope and Mussolini David I. Kertzer

The History of Memoirs

Memoirs can be traced back all the way to the days of Ancient Rome. Julius Caesar wrote about his experience in battle in his work Commentarii de Bello Gallico, which translates to Commentaries on the Gallic War. Documenting life is also a longstanding custom in Japan. The Japanese tradition of Nikki bungaku, or poetic diary, dates back to around the year 935. This unique form of journaling is made up of several autobiographical poems, interspersed with sections of prose. In the 18th century, memoirists were generally people who were exceptional in their profession, who wrote in order to provide the public with an official account of their exploits. In the 20th century, many of these books began to focus on war, especially World War II, a subject that has been explored for decades through all sorts of media. Today, memoirs and biographies can give readers insight into all kinds of people, from movie stars to presidents.

8 Great Biographical Films

  1. The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)
  2. Frida (2002)
  3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
  4. Milk (2008)
  5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
  6. The Post (2017)
  7. Lincoln (2012)
  8. Malcolm X (1992)

The History of Jane Austen

In Depth

Reality can be more interesting than fiction, and few things demonstrate this as clearly as these biographies of fascinating figures from history and the present day. Ranging from the career of a famous TV writer to an intimate account of Jane Austen's private life, these books will inform and inspire readers with remarkable true tales about notable people. In no particular order, here are thirteen titles ideal for fans of compelling nonfiction.

In the #1 spot we have David J. Kent's "Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity," which tells the extraordinary tale of Nikola Tesla, the Croatian genius who invented alternating current, wireless transmission, and the radio. During his nomadic life, Tesla encountered historical figures including Thomas Edison and Mark Twain, all while dealing with the many compulsions of his eccentric nature. Kent explores Tesla's decidedly unusual career and his many contributions to modern science, which have fundamentally shaped the modern world.

At #2 is "Einstein's Greatest Mistake" by David Bodanis. Albert Einstein's theories are known across the world, and he is widely considered one of the greatest scientists of all time. This work outlines the course of his journey, tracking his progress as a student, a patent clerk, and the most famous physicist in the world. Despite his fame, he spent his final decades in isolation, ostracized by those he once called friends. The author investigates Einstein's many flaws and complexities, presenting him as a human being as well as a scientist.

This work outlines the course of his journey, tracking his progress as a student, a patent clerk, and the most famous physicist in the world.

Coming in at #3 is "Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph" by Jan Swafford. The result of a decade of work, this thick tome exposes the many struggles the legendary composer encountered, from romantic failure to the deafness that consumed his later years. The events of Beethoven's life are interspersed with insightful interpretations of his most significant works. The combination of musical and historical analysis provides a full picture of Beethoven that illuminates the relationship between his life and his music.

In the #4 spot is Charles R. Cross's "Here We Are Now." Cross broke into the realm of biography with his 2001 book "Heavier than Heaven," which chronicles Kurt Cobain's life and death. In this follow-up work, he explores the effects that Cobain's legacy has had on pop culture, music, and even politics. Despite his tragic death, the iconic musician's influence lives on in many fields, including fashion, addiction treatment, and gay rights. Long-time fans will love reading about the ways in which Cobain continues to change the world, many years after he left it.

At #5 is Sean Parnell's "Clive." Australian mining mogul Clive Palmer has used his six-billion-dollar wealth in some idiosyncratic ways, from founding a political party to stocking a golf resort with robotic dinosaurs. Journalist Parnell dives into Palmer's engrossing life story and many eye-catching acts, as well as his lively political career. This fascinating account paints a compelling picture of a man who has been named a National Living Treasure.

This fascinating account paints a compelling picture of a man who has been named a National Living Treasure.

Taking the #6 spot is "Joss Whedon: The Biography" by Amy Pascale. For fans of sci-fi and fantasy, Whedon needs no introduction. This writer and director is the mind behind beloved television shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly," and "Dollhouse." Pascale examines Whedon's creative and personal journey, through exclusive interviews with his friends, family, and fellow TV professionals.

At #7 is Peggy Noonan's "John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father," which delves into the life and theology of Pope John Paul II, tracking his progress through the many scandals and tragedies that marked his tenure as pope. In addition to relating the events of John Paul's story, Noonan explores her own experience with Catholicism, adding a personal touch to the portrait of a world figure.

Coming in at #8 is "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke" by Peter Guralnick. This account paints a vivid picture of the famous singer-songwriter, from his stratospheric rise in the early era of the civil rights movement to the mysterious nature of his death. The choirboy-turned-star had encounters with figures including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fidel Castro. His pioneering combination of gospel music and secular lyrics remains influential to this day, and his life showcases the cultural and political tempest of the 1950s and 60s.

The choirboy-turned-star had encounters with figures including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fidel Castro.

At #9 is "Marmee and Louisa" by Eve LaPlante. Drawing from the diaries and letters of the Alcott family, this book opens a window into the relationship between the author of "Little Women" and her mother Abigail, the basis for the character of Marmee. Abigail's love for Louisa is brought to the forefront, as are her feminist efforts and her own writings. LaPlante, a descendant of the Alcotts, shines a light on this often-ignored but deeply important figure in her famous ancestor's life.

Taking the #10 position is "Kissinger's Shadow" by Greg Grandin. While many people already consider Henry Kissinger to be one of the most influential political figures of the second half of the twentieth century, Grandin argues that he is even more significant than previously estimated. Based on a slew of declassified documents, this biography positions Kissinger as the architect of America's modern foreign policy, and indirectly responsible for the wars of the recent past.

In the #11 spot is Paula Byrne's "The Real Jane Austen." In this unique narrative, Byrne examines her subject not only through her own story but through the lives of her family, friends, and contemporaries. This unorthodox method explores Austen's life and work in a fully three-dimensional context, on a scale that is both personal and global, ranging from the East Indies to the English countryside to Paris at the height of the French Revolution.

This unorthodox method explores Austen's life and work in a fully three-dimensional context, on a scale that is both personal and global, ranging from the East Indies to the English countryside to Paris at the height of the French Revolution.

At #12 is "The Amateur" by Edward Klein, a former foreign editor for "Newsweek" and former editor-in-chief of "The New York Times Magazine." In this insider look at Barack Obama's White House, Klein exposes the secrets of the administration and the First Family, including the rivalry between Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and the former president's hands-on attitude towards foreign policy. Based on almost two hundred interviews, this in-depth report portrays the ins and outs of President Obama's approach to governance.

At #13 is David I. Kertzer's "The Pope and Mussolini." Drawn from seven years of research in the Vatican archives, this work unravels the complex relationship between Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini, and the ways in which it contributed to the rise of European fascism. Both men came to power in 1922, and both agreed to pursue a mutually-beneficial political partnership, but that accord quickly fell apart as WWII advanced.