A Biographical Alphabet
Forbes offers a huge array of biographies and memoirs, spanning all subjects and time periods; one could spend a lifetime reading these lives. This list was created to give you an idea of the riches available, and to offer suggestions pointing you to some of the best. Please note that while many of them are in the Biography section (E), some are located elsewhere in the library: browsing the E section, while fun, will not reveal all the biographical material in our collections.
For each letter, we offer in this list a biography and an autobiography. This list was added in June 2008.
John Adams by David McCullough
The prize-winning historian shows us the larger-than-life but very human story of a great president and Revolutionary leader.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Previously known as a dancer and activist, Angelou gained literary fame with this, the first installment of her autobiographical series.
Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning
This book covers both the personal life of the Anglo-Irish writer Bowen and her position in twentieth century British literature and social life.
All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Bragg turns his writing skills to the story of his childhood in a poor Alabama family.
Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw
Another prize-winning biographer, Nasaw covers the rags-to-riches story of Andrew Carnegie, the ruthless self-made robber baron who later gave it all away to charity.
A Place in the Country by Laura Cunningham
City sophisticate and author Cunningham recounts with wit and affection her adjustment to country life in the Shawangunks.
My Wars are Laid Away in Books: the life of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger
Habegger uses newly discovered materials to round out a picture of Dickinson, including her struggles with family and society to maintain her individuality.
Harp by John Gregory Dunne
Dunne turns his literary skills to the experience of being Irish in America.
Jonathan Edwards: a life by George Marsden
Northampton’s famous minister and writer is brought to life in the context of his times. He shared a love of science and humanity with the next name on our list.
All the Strange Hours by Loren Eiseley
The brilliant essayist/humanist/scientist tells his life with his usual richness of style and allusion.
William Faulkner: the Man and the Artist by Stephen B.Oates
The only biographer on this list twice (see L), here Oates explores the life and significance of the South’s greatest writer.
Stay me, oh comfort me: journals and stories, 1933-41 by M.F.K. Fisher
This is a good sample of Fisher’s unique style and of her mix of food, life, and friends.
The Art of Scandal: the life & times of Isabella Stewart Gardner by Douglass Shand-Tucci
The unconventional Isabella Stewart Gardner spanned the worlds of the Boston Brahmins and the cultural/artistic elite.
Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The best-selling biographer/social historian describes her youth in the 1950s.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
One of the more problematical Founding Fathers is brought to life in this examination of his weaknesses, his strengths, and his importance to the early years of our nation.
Pentimento by Lillian Hellman
Still a wonderful read, even if parts of it seem to have been made up, and worth reading just for the controversy.
Ibsen by Michael Meyer
Award-winning Ibsen translator Michael Meyer depicts the life and influence of the famous dramatist.
Christopher And His Kind by Christopher Isherwood
The writer/intellectual/activist tells of his days in Europe from 1929-39, including the material that later became the musical Cabaret.
Samuel Johnson by W.J. Bate
This stunning biography of the great Johnson showcases his profound humanity, his brilliance, his startling modernity, and his personal struggles.
Time to be in Earnest by P.D. James
The writer who proved that mysteries also could be good, well-written novels now turns her skills to the story of her own life.
Khrushchev: the man and his era by William Taubman
This books shares the vitality of the complex man who de-Stalinized Russia and led it during the early years of the Cold War, as told by Russia expert Taubman.
Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Vivid & poetic description of her early life and how it was shaped by her immigrant family’s transmission of Chinese culture and traditions.
With Malice Toward None: the life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates
This wonderfully nuanced and detailed biography is a joy to read, and will convince anyone who still doubts it that Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents.
A Two-part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle
L'Engle's tale of her 40-year marriage with its frictions and joys reveals some of the sources for her warmth and wisdom.
The Sisters: the saga of the Mitford family by Mary S. Lowell
All the issues and culture of twentieth century Europe were contained in this one extraordinary family, especially the six sisters who included a Fascist, a Communist, a Duchess, a novelist, and a Hitler fanatic.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
One of the most admired freedom leaders of the 20th century tells how it all happened.
Nightingales: the extraordinary upbringing and curious life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill
A reviewer noted “expansive, richly detailed, generous to a fault” about this book on the great health crusader whose own life and personality were very eccentric.
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
Despite his Russian upbringing, Nabokov was considered equally brilliant in Russian, English, or French; this meditation on his youth in pre-Revolutionary Russia in aristocratic/intellectual circles is one of the great autobiographies in English.
The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Priscilla J. McMillan
Not a full biography, but a scathing expose of how Edward Teller and others colluded to ruin Oppenheimer, thus furthering their careers and their desire for a hard arms race.
Are You Somebody by Nuala O’Faolain
This tale of her rise from a poor Irish childhood to famous media journalist and author made the bestseller lists; brief but haunting.
Peter the Great,his life and world by Robert K. Massie
Massie does justice to this extraordinary monarch of huge passions, ambitions, and contradictions, who used his absolute power to push Russia towards a modern state and Europeanization.
Sleeping With Cats by Marge Piercy
The acclaimed writer of poetry, fiction, and criticism turns a perceptive eye on her own life, musing over her successes and failures, garnering insights throughout.
Kate Quinton’s Days by Susan Sheehan
This moving account of aging immigrant Kate Quinton’s fight to stay independent is juxtaposed with accounts of her earlier life. Journalist Sheehan has particular skill in telling individual stories in a way that illuminates larger issues and captures our hearts.
How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen
This is a book for book lovers as well as biography fans. Novelist/columnist Quindlen explores the interactions between reading and writing, her own life, and the course of human history and culture.
FDR by Jean Edward Smith
A great biography of a great president! Smith has the best biographers’ knack of combining the big picture and the perfect anecdote.
Deadline: a memoir by James Reston
The beloved columnist and journalist on politics and international relations tells the story of his life and career, from a poor Scottish childhood on to multiple awards and fame.
Stalin: the court of the red tsar by Simon Montefiore
This vivid portrait of one of history’s great monsters would make a good book to compare with our list’s biographies of Peter the Great (a more beneficent Tsar) or Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin’s contemporary.
All God’s Dangers: the life of Nate Shaw – oral history edited by Theodore Rosengarten
Rosengarten edits his extensive interviews with poor sharecropper Nate Shaw to produce this moving “autobiography” of one man’s struggle against an unjust society, now a classic in the literature of Southern race relations.
Mark Twain by Ron Powers
This lively biography brings out the light and dark sides of the great American writer: his generosity and cynicism, his warmth and his bitter anger.
Touch and go: a memoir by Studs Terkel
The great oral historian of other people’s lives – and an incurable talker – now tells the story of his own long and productive life.
Enfant Terrible: the life & world of Maurice Utrillo by Peter de Polnay
Mental illness and alcoholism didn't prevent Utrillo from becoming one of the most famous French artists of the 20th Century; teaching by his mother, an Impressionist and associate of Renoir and Degas, did help.
Self-consciousness by John Updike
One of the great literary stylists of American fiction recounts his upbringing, family history, and personal growth.
Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey
Strachey revolutionized biography by cutting the endless details and exploring the psychology of his subjects in an elegant literary style. This witty but sympathetic story of Queen Victoria ends with a bravura stream-of-consciousness picture of her dying moments flashing back across her long life.
Palimpsest: a memoir by Gore Vidal
In "H" we had Pentimento; now we have Palimpsest. Vidal is as cutting and witty as ever in this memoir of his first four decades; you may want to continue with Point to Point Navigation, covering the next part of his life.
Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
Having put Lytton Strachey in “V”, how can we avoid Virginia Woolf in “W”? This award-winning biography is one of the best of the many books about Virginia Woolf.
Black Boy by Richard Wright
In this powerful autobiography, the author of Native Son shows the roots of his fiction and explores the black experience in America; this book has stimulated as much comment and controversy as his novels.
Dragon Empress by Marina Warner (Cixi, Dowager Empress of China)
Marina Warner's biography of Cixi, the power behind the throne of the last Qing emperors, brings to life a lost world and helps explain the dynasty's fall after 300 years. A good companion read would be Emperor of China: self portrait of Kang Hsi, edited by Jonathan Spence, about the first Qing ruler.
Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X's classic about the effects of racism on him, and his escape from a life of crime and prison by finding self-reliance and Islam.
Shakey: Neal Young’s biography by Jimmy McDonough
The stormy life & career of one of the great rock musicians from the mid-1960s onward, profiled by a Village Voice writer who was granted extensive interviews and access to the sometimes reclusive Young.
Memoirs by William B. Yeats
Of many autobiographical works by the great Irish writer, this includes an autobiography done in midlife and a journal written from 1908-30.
Zappa by Barry Miles
Miles maintains some coherence in recounting the busy life of iconoclastic rock/classical composer, songwriter & performer Zappa, who managed to upset almost everyone but was always original.
Dough: a memoir by Mort Zachter
The stranger-than-fiction story of Zachter and his hard-working, seemingly poor family, and how he discovers that his eccentric uncles had amassed secret millions while running their bakery store and letting the family live a hard life.