75 Biographies to Read Before You Die

Because if we can’t learn from experience, we can at least learn from the experiences of other people! Bookstores and libraries practically bend with biographies as a result of this total truism, although some quite obviously have just a little more to offer the world than a few of their shelfmates! Whether because of some deep digging into history and culture, staggering insight into the human condition, or laughter and great storytelling — or, obviously, some combination thereof — the following stand as a primer on the biographies and autobiographies with plenty of content to keep minds engaged. Use them as a launching point to read about even more men and women you might find fascinating!

The Arts

  1. The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari:

    Wallow in the majesty of the greatest Italian Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Giotto, Brunellschi, and others of lofty, lasting influence.

  2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi:

    Renowned graphic artist and cartoonist Marjane Satrapi ruminates on her childhood during the Iranian Revolution, expatriate experiences in a less-than-loving Europe, and return to a militant regime.

  3. Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker by Lynn Haney:

    While known primarily as a vaudevillian and muse to the likes of Pablo Picasso, the fabulous Josephine Baker also stood up for Civil Rights and La Resistance and smashed glass ceilings for women of African descent in Europe and America.

  4. Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith:

    Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith earned a Pulitzer for their look at the troubled life and ideologies behind the heavily influential abstract impressionist painter whose work was far, far more than “just drips.”

  5. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death by Jean-Dominique Bauby:

    As the editor-in-chief of Elle in France, Jean-Dominique Bauby chronicled the latest fashion triumphs and tragedies until a stroke rendered him largely catatonic. But his mind remained lucid, and he communicated using a system of blinks, which eventually led to this amazing biography of a fascinating, trendsetting life.

  6. Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin:

    Comedy isn’t easy, and some of the best, most influential practitioners worked hard and suffered worse in order to achieve even a sliver of what they have.

  7. Just Kids by Patti Smith:

    During the 1960s and 1970s, musician and poet Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe stood at the forefront of some major creative, political, and social changes, which the former chronicles in provocative and insightful detail.

  8. Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal by John M. MacGregor:

    Although this biography mostly covers the reclusive outsider artist’s massive output of thousands of pages of illustrations and writing, his curious life story and almost magical energy for creation fully deserve contemplation.

  9. Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda:

    The art world’s most famous patroness and cultural icon of the Renaissance era frequently attracted as many scorching detractors as she did ardent admirers, so a rich stew of myths managed to engulf her with time. But once the right historian launched a painstaking inquiry into her personal letters, the reality eventually emerged.

  10. Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words by Hilary Lewis and John O’Connor:

    In a series of intimate interviews, a veritable supernova of architectural significance selects his 20 favorite works and explains the thought process behind them and why he considers them so personally and professionally important.

  11. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo:

    Beloved, passionate Frida Kahlo and her tragic, tumultuous life come to readers in her own unique voice and artwork, placing her laudable oeuvre in its proper context.

  12. The Quitter by Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel:

    Underground comics juggernaut Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame shows fans the origins of his notoriously negative, but always provocative and insightful, outlook on life.

  13. Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash:

    Only the Man in Black himself could perfectly translate his transcendent badassitude from real life onto the printed page.

  14. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain:

    Culinary arts still qualify as arts! Anthony Bourdain’s deliciously snarky, candid autobiography explains his passionate relationship with food as well as the realities of working in a fancy-pants restaurant.

  15. If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell:

    Bruce Campbell wrote up a refreshing and fun glimpse into the Hollywood life from the perspective of a man perpetually in the throes of cult status — and, of course, absolutely loving every minute of it!

History

  1. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman:

    This Pulitzer winner sees the acclaimed artist interviewing his father about his harrowing Holocaust experiences and eventual impact on his later family life.

  2. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller:

    Most people know the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, the teacher who believed in her despite her visual and hearing impairments, but they don’t always know about her later career as a hard-hitting activist campaigning for equal rights.

  3. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs:

    Both Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Frederick Douglass’ The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass obviously deserve reading for insight into the experiences of slaves in America, but Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl exists as one of the only surviving autobiographies uniquely exploring the atrocities from a female perspective.

  4. Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCort:

    Ireland’s saddening history of crushing poverty pops into startling life in this story of a Depression-era family struggling beneath a father whose alcoholism renders his wife and children desperate and an overarching sociopolitical climate with few opportunities to escape.

  5. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung:

    Loung Ung lived a charmed life thanks to her father’s political clout, but the rise of the despotic Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge dismantled and destroyed everything when she was only five. Her family split, with the children forced into excruciating manual labor.

  6. Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles by Anthony Swofford:

    Members of the Armed Forces didn’t just fight against the Iraqis during the first Gulf War — they also struggled against intense psychological, mental, emotional, and physical pressure almost as damaging as enemy fire.

  7. Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsebet Bathory by Kimberly L. Craft:

    Hungary’s “Blood Countess” spawned a plethora of legends about her insatiable predilection for murder and possible vampirism (sorry, Twilight fans, but vampires aren’t real) receives a more thorough investigation here, with primary documents either dispelling or confirming some of her more egregious crimes.

  8. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank:

    During her family’s stint hiding from Nazis in a cramped, Netherlands-based attic, 13-year-old (15 at the time of capture) Anne Frank kept a journal meant to bolster her spirits and attempt to make sense of a rapidly crumbling world.

  9. Confessions by Saint Augustine:

    Theological heavyweight St. Augustine of Hippo knew a thing or two about sinning, and his reflections on the past came to leave a huge impact on Catholicism. Which, in and of itself, has left a huge impact (for better and for worse) on world history.

  10. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne:

    Witness the downfall of the Comanche peoples through the eyes of their courageous, dedicated chief who just couldn’t stand up to the raw power of firearms.

  11. Comfort Woman: A Filipina’s Story of Prostitution and Slavery Under the Japanese Military by Maria Rosa Henson:

    During World War II, the Japanese armed forces imprisoned women from occupied territories and oppressed and raped them as prostitutes and sex slaves. At 15, Maria Rosa Henson found herself chained to such dehumanizing horrors, which she suppressed for nearly five decades before publishing.

  12. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah:

    12-year-old Ishmael Beah came of age pressed into forced service as a child soldier as Sierra Leone’s civil war swelled. He fought for the government, brainwashed and trained to murder rebels with an AK-47 if they dared to challenge the overarching authority.

  13. Night by Elie Wiesel:

    One of the most acclaimed, popular autobiographies of all time follows the author’s survival at Auschwitz and subsequent trauma of losing everyone and everything he held dear.

  14. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky:

    Without the humble cod providing sustenance on long sea voyages, imperialism’s reach never would have stretched as far as it did. Even non-humans leave enough of an impact on history to warrant biographies; they just don’t make for the most engaging interview subjects.

  15. Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker by Stacy A. Cordery:

    The headstrong, hyperintelligent daughter of Teddy Roosevelt never let the prevailing arbitrary expectations of women stand in the way of her enjoyment of everything life had to offer — and not shying away from offering her opinions, either!

Literature

  1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou:

    From a small Arkansas town to the streetcars of San Francisco, one of America’s most beloved poets ruminates on the life that led her to such a stellar writing career.

  2. Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces by Cory MacLauchlin:

    The tragic, complex story behind A Confederacy of Dunces‘ author and his posthumous publication is as incredible as the Pulitzer-winning novel itself.

  3. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:

    Ernest Hemingway’s time amongst the expatriates of Paris between World Wars is immortalized here, with stories of his friendships with Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, and famously F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  4. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein:

    Rather than penning a straight-up autobiography, celebrated modernist Gertrude Stein chose to reflect upon her life surrounded by the intellectual and creative elite through the lens of her secretary and lover Alice B. Toklas.

  5. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King:

    Both an autobiography and a pretty handy-dandy guide to not writing terribly, the master of horror delivers a necessary read for English majors especially. Though, of course, anyone can benefit from his advice!

  6. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi:

    Half autobiography, half literary criticism, Reading Lolita in Tehran explores how reading groups kept a professor and her female students together as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule suppressed their rights to an education.

  7. Why be Happy when You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson:

    Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, a landmark of LGBTQIA literature, pulled considerably from author Jeanette Winterson’s own personal traumas as the lesbian daughter of radically Pentecostal missionaries.

  8. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov:

    This non-chronological memoir explores the controversial, but still beloved, writer’s life in Russia prior to his American immigration.

  9. Why this World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser:

    Celebrated existentialist and modernist Clarice Lispector’s unusual life saw her transition from the struggling child of Ukranian immigrants to a quirky and beloved Brazilian literary superstar.

  10. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami:

    Some of the greatest works of contemporary literature, like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Sputnik Sweetheart, and After Dark, burst into existence thanks to their author’s passion for marathon training.

  11. I.Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov:

    Even readers who dislike science-fiction still witness Isaac Asimov’s thumbprint in the popular culture surrounding them, so it pays to stay in the know about his life, works, and philosophies.

  12. Rent Girl by Michelle Tea:

    The Mission District in San Francisco serves as the piquant backdrop for the irreverent, hilarious, and honest writer Michelle Tea’s straightforward memoir of prostitution, drug abuse, and the girlfriend who led her down that path.

  13. Lucky: A Memoir by Alice Sebold:

    During her freshman year at Syracuse, this bestselling author suffered a horrific rape by a stranger, and she frankly discusses both the trauma and the resulting painful healing and criminal justice process here.

  14. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers:

    David Eggers’ curious memoir mimics the natural state of memory, with plenty of bluntly admitted edits and embellishments meant to illustrate an overarching theme of veracity versus storytelling.

  15. The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain:

    Learn all about how one of the literary world’s most razor-sharp wits approached his own writing and perceived the world around him with almost eerily keen insight.

Politics

  1. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto “Che” Guevara:

    Before his rise to power as a Marxist guerilla in Argentina, this history-making medical student toured South America with a friend, an experience which eventually forged his political ideologies.

  2. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama:

    Long before he even considered running for president (much less actually winning!), Senator Barack Obama wrote a memoir regarding his upbringing as a mixed-race child in America, and the father he barely knew.

  3. Gandhi: An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi:

    Without ever once resorting to violence, Gandhi drove the British out of India and inspired later peaceful movements — most famously (in America, anyways) the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

  4. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

    After a fundamentalist terrorist threatened the author with murder, she fled oppression in order to speak out about women’s rights under theocratic regimes — specifically Muslim — around the world.

  5. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Clayborne Carson:

    Historian Clayborne Carson compiled together the Civil Rights icon’s own works into one revealing glimpse into his ideologies personal history.

  6. Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert:

    Seeing as how he kinda sorta led Great Britain through World War II, it’s probably safe to assume that Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood as a rather important historical and political figure.

  7. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela:

    South Africa’s first democratically-elected president formed one of the cornerstones of the anti-apartheid movement, eventually freeing indigenous peoples from the tyranny of European subjugation.

  8. Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel:

    With or without China standing poised to swell into the next great hegemonic entity, it pays to know the political forces that shaped its current form. After Mao Zedong, nobody impacted the nation during the 20th century like Deng Xiaoping, who fronted the Communist Party of China and eventually dismantled the very economic system he fought so hard to implement.

  9. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts:

    Prior to his shocking assassination, one of America’s very first openly gay politicians worked tirelessly to ensure equal rights for his fellow San Franciscans back in the mid-1900s, setting the foundation for today’s LGBT movements.

  10. Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens:

    Razor-sharp, undeniably inflammatory political commentator Christopher Hitchens reveled in his frequently diametric views, and he dissects the origins of his myriad (not to mention vocal!) opinions here.

  11. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley:

    One of the all-time bestselling memoirs hails from the American Civil Rights movement, where leader Malcolm X challenged the social injustices allowing for racism and segregation to keep perpetuating their ugly selves.

  12. Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie:

    Peter the Great began ruling Russia at only ten years of age in 1682, eventually instigating a cultural overhaul inspired by Western Europe’s Renaissance ideologies.

  13. The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham:

    Nobody symbolizes the painful struggle for Burmese democracy at the international level like this courageous woman and politico. Her extraordinary life has taken her around the world, earned her an Oxford education, numerous humanitarian awards (including the Nobel Peace Prize!), and famously involved a 15-year house arrest before the peoples voted her into Parliament in April 2012.

  14. Barbara Jordan: An American Hero by Mary Beth Rogers:

    As both an African-American and a woman, Barbara Jordan broke ground as a politician in the South — a region not exactly applauded for its history of racial tolerance and equality.

  15. John Adams by David McCullough:

    Although this Founding Father quite loathed politics, he still wound up the second American president and an influential statesman whose ideologies persist on into today.

Science and Technology

  1. My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla by Nikola Tesla:

    Only recently did this brilliant, ahead-of-his-time inventor start receiving his proper due, and anyone wanting to play catch-up should check out his eloquent discussion of his early life and eventual inspirations.

  2. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard Feynman:

    Even factoring out the whole “one of the most brilliant physicists of all time” thing, Richard Feynman definitely led an incredibly interesting life. Who else can brag about painting a naked toreador?

  3. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss:

    Together, they discovered radium and polonium, won the Nobel Prize, and furthered humanity’s understanding of what radiation meant and what it could do for numerous industries.

  4. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore:

    Explore the experiences of one of the most unfairly controversial figures in the biological sciences far beyond the boundaries of his famed voyage with the H.M.S. Beagle, with keen insight into the Victorian culture what shunned and reviled him and the vestiges of that mindset remaining today.

  5. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch:

    Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Randy Pausch used his final trip to the podium before pancreatic cancer claimed his life to deliver a message of hopes, dreams, and legacies.

  6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot:

    Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, and a literally undying culture made from her cells eventually led to hundreds of astounding medical discoveries — including the polio virus. She never knew, nor did her family ever receive any financial compensation, and her startling legacy remained largely unknown until recently.

  7. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl:

    Miraculously exiting Auschwitz, Kaufering, and Turkheim alive led to humanistic psychology juggernaut Viktor Frankl to establish some of the most significant social science theories established during the 20th century.

  8. Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnik with William L. Simon:

    After breaking into some of the most sophisticated networks in the world, Kevin Mitnik decided to play with the FBI’s encryption, leading to both a digital chase of crazy proportions and a lucrative partnership.

  9. Find where the Wind Goes: Moments from My Life by Mae Jemison:

    The very first African-American woman in space also impressed her contemporaries (and the general public!) with additional success as a physician, professor, dancer, actress, and entrepreneur; she’s a fantastic role model for any kid or adult who doesn’t take too kindly to pigeonholing!

  10. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson:

    His name and visage may remain a staple of pop culture iconography, but average readers might not as know much of Albert Einstein’s interesting life and contributions to science and humanity as they probably should.

  11. My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor:

    After suffering from a devastating stroke wreaking havoc on the left half of her brain, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor considered the condition a uniquely first-person opportunity to research how the body’s most important organ repairs itself after such a major and frightful trauma.

  12. The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics by Robin Marantz Henig:

    Genetics research continues pushing its way into the headlines as more and more researchers delve into the body’s scientific coding, and it all started with a humble Moravian experimenting with the pea plants in his garden.

  13. Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton by Richard S. Westfall:

    Sir Isaac Newton’s contributions to science, technology, and mathematics make him seem almost a myth than a man, but biographer Richard S. Westfall infuses his biography with plenty of very human moments to counteract this perception.

  14. The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks:

    Stereotypes continue accusing the mentally ill of incompetence and inferiority, a frankly stupid mindset USC psychology and law professor Elyn R. Saks has devoted her entire career to dismantling. Herself a schizophrenic, she speaks of these dangerous perspectives from personal and professional angles alike in both her memoir and her body of academic work.

  15. The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

    Copious charm, humor, and intelligence have all established Neil deGrasse Tyson’s status as a beloved popular science figurehead who makes the mindbending realities of astrophysics accessible to a wider audience. His engaging autobiography delves into how he first discovered a passion for how the universe keeps a-spinnin’ and eventually parlayed it into a career he just plain loves.