How to Choose a Biography to Read

The first step in choosing a biography to read is finding one that has been written by someone you respect. Next, it’s important to consider what your interests are, as this will influence which biographies interest you the most. Then, try and find out when it was published so you can see how long ago the events being covered took place. A good rule of thumb for reading an autobiography is if someone died within the last few decades or less then their story may not be timely enough for your tastes.

One of the best ways to learn about a person’s life is through their autobiography. These books are not only written by the person but also provide an in-depth look into what that person went through.

Biographies are a particularly diverse category of literature. By reading them, you may learn not only about a person’s life, but also about the historical time in which they lived via their unique prism. Even if another person had a very different and far more epic life than yours, following the outlines of their tale might provide you lots of insight into your own.

But what do you do if you want to read a biography of someone and there are other possibilities available?

Outside of Jesus, Abraham Lincoln is claimed to be the subject of upwards of 15,000 books, the most of any individual in history. Many additional historical personalities have bibliographical files in the thousands, and countless more with little historical significance have more than a few notable biographies. Selecting the greatest one to read may convert a simple hunt for a book into a long-term study endeavor with figures like those. But, as I’ll explain below, there are a few strategies you may use to search through the alternatives and pick the appropriate biography for you.

Take into account the time period and publication date. 

If a person was especially famous, a new biography of them would be released every decade or two. You may discover biographies of the same person written in 1920, 1970, and 2020, and each will provide you with a totally different reading experience; for example, a biography of Thomas Jefferson from the 1950s portrays a far different image of the guy than one from the previous decade. Every book, like its themes, is a product of its period. 

The way older and younger biographies approach their topics, as well as the author’s perspective on what a biography is “for,” is one of the most significant differences:

Bios from the past 

Older biographies tend to focus on a subject’s achievements rather than their inner thoughts and personal lives. They aren’t very interested in interpersonal interactions or psychological conjecture. Digging into a person’s private life was once considered impolite, and older biographies were more akin to eulogies — summaries of a person’s broader, publicly-known contours of life, with their failings downplayed and their accomplishments emphasized, all tinged with a touch of romanticism and idealism.

In keeping with this, earlier biographies are typically written in a more inspirational, soul-stirring way, and attempt to quietly or not so silently impart a moral education alongside an individual’s narrative. Robert Richardson’s 1986 biography of Thoreau, for example, is considerably more important than anything fresh on the market. In general, the most transcendent biographies I’ve read — the ones that stoke my thumos — are on the elder end of the spectrum. It’s an out-of-style writing style that’s nonetheless worth reading.    

Bios that are more recent

Newer biographies are written in a more journalistic approach, with the author’s goal being to convey knowledge rather than inspire; as a result, they tend to provide a more balanced, less mythological, and romantic picture of history.

 

Declassified medical data, formerly family-kept letters, and freshly uncovered diaries are often included in modern biographies to provide updated, more accurate information on their subjects. Such sources are used to fill in information about a person’s public life, as well as to evaluate their private life and psyche, all of which may have a significant impact on how they are written about and seen. Modern biographies are known for taking a “warts-and-all” approach to their subjects, not shying away from bringing out a subject’s perceived flaws or moral faults, or speculating about possible skeletons in their closet. Even current writers like Ron Chernow and Andrew Roberts, who take a more heroic approach to their topics, will write about and confront George Washington’s slaves’ mistreatment or Winston Churchill’s conviction in the supremacy of white, English-speaking people, respectively. 

Aside from the tone/approach difference, there’s also a difference in writing style between older and modern biographies, with the latter’s style — which depends more on an accessible, narrative structure than in previous decades — being considerably simpler to read. This contemporary type of biography isn’t always preferable than the drier, more linear approach of the past, but it is often more appealing.

When you have a choice between an earlier and a newer edition of a biography, it comes down to your own reading preferences and goals. Do you wish to be kept up to date? Do you wish to debunk some myths? Do you want to be motivated?

Read the first few chapters many times. 

The best and simplest approach to distinguish between different biographies about the same person is to read the first chapter of many volumes. You’ll get a feel of the author’s writing style and basic thesis about the individual after just a few pages. 

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts book cover

Let’s look at Napoleon’s example through the eyes of two recent biographers: When you read the introduction to Andrew Roberts’ biography of Napoleon, you’ll notice that the author sees the French general through the lens of history’s “Great Man” — that is, Napoleon was a misunderstood but brilliant and singular leader who changed the course of history by demonstrating admirable and heroic qualities. As previously stated, Roberts writes in a tone that harkens back to the “moral” biographies that were popular in previous decades but have lately fallen out of favor.

Napoleon by Adam zamoyski book cover

Another biographer, Adam Zamoyski, takes a more “product of his time” approach to Napoleon, and it’s clear from the start in the introduction that the author has no moral position on the guy and is merely trying to understand him. Even just glancing at the covers, you can tell there will be a variation in how they approach their topic. 

While I used to make my decisions based just on the introduction/preface, I’ve lately found that I should read the first chapter as well. Some writers utilize a different, more casual tone in the introduction paragraph than they do in the “actual” material, which might be deceptive to a reader seeking to choose a book. 

 

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This kind of comparison reading is relatively simple to undertake in a bookshop. You have a few possibilities online, notably with Amazon: 1) Take advantage of Amazon’s many free Kindle samples. There are no boundaries, so let your imagination go wild. 2) For newer and more popular titles, you may typically read a few pages of the introduction, prologue, and/or first chapter by clicking the “Look Inside” button on the paperback or hardback selections (s). 3) If you’re looking for an older, less popular book, you may have to purchase a few copies and try them out. Keep in mind that you may return any book within 30 days if it was fulfilled by Amazon (rather than a third-party vendor). So select a few Lincoln biographies, read the first chapter of each, and retain just the one you like best (or maybe you’ll discover you want to read a variety of perspectives!). 

Read Customer Reviews 

Book reviews, both from ordinary people and from critics, should be taken into account. People on Amazon are strange when it comes to reviews. They’ll get strangely personal, or merely critique the product/packaging, or provide a one-word summation of their feelings (“Terrible!”). Because the individuals who write on Goodreads tend to be serious readers, I’ve found it to be a far more accurate review site. If it isn’t a relatively passionate interest, you won’t utilize and publish reviews on Goodreads. 

There are a few locations where I look for critics’ reviews. Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly both publish brief, summary-style pieces without bylines to eliminate any appearance of prejudice. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are my other key sources of information. Both provide lengthy, essay-style assessments that go further into a book’s qualities and shortcomings, but they may also be politically or culturally biased. Reading both will give you an excellent sense of balance.  

Reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, but if you’ve read a couple of chapters of a book and loved it, then found positive reviews all over the place, that biography will be a fairly safe choice. 

Consider the length of the project and the amount of time it will take.

I’ve come to value more books and writers who economize well as I’ve taught more — and especially as I’ve done more after-action evaluation on which books actually make a difference in the lives of students and friends — and I’ve come to prefer Robert Dallek to Robert Caro for a biography of Lyndon Johnson over time. Both are wonderful, and Caro’s details are incredible, but Dallek’s 400 pages pack a lot more punch each paragraph than Caro’s 3,000-plus pages. — Senator Ben Sasse is a Republican from Nebraska.

I used to be an obsessive bibliophile who wanted to read the longest series and thickest volumes I could find when I first began reading biographies. I felt Sasse’s concept on brevity was stupid when it was first published a few years ago. But, after a few of years and hundreds of biographies under my belt, I have to confess that I am more in agreement with him.

 

Life is hectic, and finding inspiration for a personal reading project may be difficult. Taking up a multi-volume biography might be so frightening that you don’t know where to begin. It’s totally fair to choose a shorter book that won’t take as much time and has “more bang per paragraph,” as Sasse put it. Sometimes a book like that may pique your attention and lead to more reading; other times, you’ll find that a little sample is all you need to learn about a certain topic.   

Also, don’t overlook what are often referred to as “micro-histories” of certain persons. These are books that focus on a particular facet of a topic or a certain time period in a person’s life rather than providing a comprehensive examination. These novels may communicate volumes about a person’s soul and have an outsized impression on the reader without demanding the commitment of a door-stopping tome. For example, I liked Matthew Algeo’s compact The President Is a Sick Man over the various 500+ page Grover Cleveland biographies. It also made me understand that I don’t care all that much about Cleveland. 

Read Authors You Already Know and Like!  

Stick with an author you like after you’ve found one. This is a very simple topic, but I don’t consider it frequently enough while picking the next subject of my reading pursuits. For example, Jean Edward Smith writes highly engaging and informative biographies that are among my favorites in the genre. Rather of diving into uncharted authorial seas with more famous themes, I should pick up his works on John Marshall and Lucius Clay—less glamorous subjects—which I haven’t done yet. The same can be said for other authors I like, such as Walter Isaacson, Ron Chernow, Robert Massie, and others. 

Again, this is a strategy I’ve only used half-heartedly so far, but it’s paid off handsomely, and I expect to use it more in the future year. 

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The “best biographies of all time” is a question that has been asked for a long time. There are many different ways to answer this question, but the best way is to find a biography that you enjoy reading.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 4 types of biographies?

A: The 4 types of biographies are the autobiography, memoirs, life story and journal.

Which is best biography to read?

A: I dont have a preference.

What are the most important details in a biography?

A: Many people would say that the most important details in a biography are when, where and how someone was born. Others may also include information like their height or weight, as well as any awards they have received.

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