“It is impossible for me to say these are the top five, but I can say here are five biographies I think are wonderful, each in its own way.”
1. John Benedict Buescher, The Remarkable Life of John Murrary Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land.
Buescher has written a marvelous life of a subject (“ahead of his time” in a drastically muddled way) whose resistance to any conventional narrative—not to mention his sheer bad taste—would have daunted a lesser biographer.
2. Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Poets.
Some of the best “biographies” are much shorter than book-length, giving us the gist of a life; Johnson set the standard.
3. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era.
Part biography, part “literary criticism,” part intellectual history—and altogether extraordinary.
4. Simone Petrement, Simone Weil: A Life.
There are drawbacks to a biography written by a friend of the subject, but this is nevertheless an indispensable account of the enigmatic, God-haunted Frenchwoman.
5. Frances Stonor Saunders, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini.
This heart-breaking story of Violet Gibson (the woman of the title) and Italy under Mussolini juxtaposes the mental instability of a devout Catholic woman, cruelly abandoned by her family (though her “madness” made a kind of sense), with the megalomania of Il Duce, long indulged.
Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine.
Here are his top five biography recommendations:
1. Ira Stoll, Samuel Adams: A Life (Free Press, 2008).
As Adams’ biblical faith helping him to balance zeal with wariness, he fomented a revolution that (unlike those in France and Russia) did not end in a bloodbath and dictatorship.
2. Thomas Kidd, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (Basic, 2011).
A great life with surprising twists, including Henry’s 1773 analysis of the slavery system as anti-biblical, repugnant, and destructive to liberty—but hard to give up.
3. Phillip Simpson, A Life of Gospel Peace: A Biography of Jeremiah Burroughs (Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).
Places a spotlight on little-known Jeremiah Burroughs, 17th-century explainer of how to gain the “Rare jewel of Christian contentment.”
4. Robert J. Norrell, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (Harvard University Press, 2009).
Historians have either angelized or demonized him, often unaware of the twisting racetrack he had to run on to keep from being run over.
5. Stanley Kurtz, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism (Simon and Schuster, 2010).
Refrains from hysteria and methodically shows how Obama takes steps “designed to slowly but surely move the country closer to the socialist ideal.”