The best biographical reading

The Books I Picked & Why

Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

By Richard Holmes

Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Why this book?

A book about biography, with wonderful examples of not just his own but any serious searcher’s methodology. As Holmes writes, the biographer is “a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper.” It’s true!  In my own books I have engaged in the kind of dialogue with my subject that Holmes describes as leading to “a relationship of trust” between biographer and subject. But as he points out, while trust is what one seeks implicitly to achieve, there is always a good chance that that trust has been misplaced: “The possibility of error,” he insists, “is constant in all biography.”


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

By Taylor Branch

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

Why this book?

I know, I know, this isn’t quite right. It’s not a biography of Martin Luther King – it’s a biography of the Movement, it’s a biography of an era – but it’s so full of telling detail, it’s so full of life, it incorporates so many facts and so much emotional truth into a flowing narrative style that it’s impossible to resist being drawn into what may be the most important story of our time. I tried to ape Taylor Branch’s methodology in the prologue to Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, which focuses not on its principal character but on the meeting of Elvis’ discoverer, Sam Phillips, and Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips to give some sense of the world, and the revolutionary thinking, that Elvis would step into three years later. In Parting the Waters Branch focuses on Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King’s predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, to suggest a world of greater dimensionality. Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (see next entry) is an even more explicit acknowledgment of the heroic dimensions of that world.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Fire Next Time

By James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time

Why this book?

Again, not so much an explicit memoir (though it is framed by Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”) but a portrait of a community, and the values it stands for, values heralded by everyone from Zora Neale Hurston to Albert Murray to Paul Laurence Dunbar to... Sam Cooke, the subject of my biography, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, which was very much inspired by Baldwin’s words. The world that Baldwin described possessed, he wrote, “a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster… very moving and very rare. Perhaps we were, all of us – pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run.” If so, it was that inescapably shared heritage, Baldwin went on, that helped create the dynamic that allowed one “to respect and rejoice in… life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” That was what I tried to evoke most of all, that sense of communal “presentness,” in the pages of my book.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost

By Paul Hendrickson

Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost

Why this book?

It was Hemingway’s Boat, with its discursive Shandean style, that set the tone for my book Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was the only way I knew to tell a story that was so uniquely decentralized, so rollickingly exploratory, but I couldn’t begin to rival Paul Hendrickson, who remains the master of the tangential truth, digging deeper into the soul of the man than any Hemingway biography I have ever read – by focusing on his boat. At one point in my Phillips biography, after wandering off-course for 60 pages and finally coming back to the narrative moment I had abandoned, I wrote, “For all of my faith in extended digression I hope I haven’t stretched the limits of reader patience too much by now. Let me just pick up the thread.” But this is nothing compared to Paul Hendrickson’s masterful command of seemingly structureless story-telling, the non-fiction equivalent of some of Alice Munro’s greatest short stories. What can I say? Prize the digression.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Chuck Berry: The Autobiography

By Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry: The Autobiography

Why this book?

Chuck Berry: The Autobiography is a primary clue to the Inner Chuck, if not the Facts of Chuck, an indisputable masterpiece, witty, elegant, and revealing, and (or perhaps but) ultimately elusive. Unlike so many music (and other) autobiographies, every word of this one was written by its author in a web of elegant, intricate connections that are both coded and transparent. Very much like the songs.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists

Random Book Lists