The best biographical reading from a biographer

Who am I?

Peter Guralnick has been called "a national resource" by critic Nat Hentoff for work that has argued passionately and persuasively for the vitality of this country’s intertwined black and white musical traditions. His books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; Searching for Robert Johnson; Sweet Soul Music; and Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. His 2015 biography, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization. His most recent book is Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing.

I wrote...

Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing

By Peter Guralnick,

Book cover of Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing

What is my book about?

This new book of profiles is not so much a summation as a culmination of Peter Guralnick’s remarkable work, which from the start has encompassed the full sweep of blues, gospel, country, and rock ‘ n roll. It covers old ground from new perspectives, offering deeply felt, masterful, and strikingly personal portraits of creative artists, both musicians, and writers, at the height of their powers.

“You put the book down feeling that its sweep is vast, that you have read of giants who walked among us,” rock critic Lester Bangs wrote of Guralnick’s earlier work in words that could just as easily be applied to this new one. And yet, for all of the encomiums that Guralnick’s books have earned for their remarkable insights and depth of feeling, Looking to Get Lost stands as perhaps his most personal.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Why did I love 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.”

By Richard Holmes,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Footsteps as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Richard Holmes knew he had become a true biographer the day his bank bounced a check that he had inadvertently dated 1772. Because for the acclaimed chronicler of Shelley and Coleridge, biography is a physical pursuit, an ardent and arduous retracing of footsteps that may have vanished centuries before.
In this gripping book, Holmes takes us from France’s Massif Central, where he followed the route taken by Robert Louis Stevenson and a sweet-natured donkey, to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Revolutionary Paris, to the Italian villages where Percy Shelley tried to cast off the strictures of English morality and marriage. Footsteps is a…

Parting the Waters

By Taylor Branch,

Book cover of Parting the Waters

Why did I love 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. This book focuses on Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King’s predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, to suggest a world of greater dimensionality. 

By Taylor Branch,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Parting the Waters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Parting the Waters, the first volume of his essential America in the King Years series, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch gives a “compelling…masterfully told” (The Wall Street Journal) account of Martin Luther King’s early years and rise to greatness.

Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American Civil Rights Movement, Parting the Waters is destined to endure for generations.

Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the corridors of Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of…

The Fire Next Time

By James Baldwin,

Book cover of The Fire Next Time

Why did I love 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. 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.

By James Baldwin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Fire Next Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A seminal meditation on race by one of our greatest writers' Barack Obama

'We, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation'

James Baldwin's impassioned plea to 'end the racial nightmare' in America was a bestseller when it appeared in 1963, galvanising a nation and giving voice to the emerging civil rights movement. Told in the form of two intensely personal 'letters', The Fire Next Time is at once a powerful evocation of Baldwin's early life in Harlem and an excoriating condemnation of the terrible legacy of racial injustice.


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

Why did I love this book?

It was Hemingway’s Boat, with its discursive Shandean style, that set the tone for my book. 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.

By Paul Hendrickson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hemingway's Boat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A man who let who let his own insides get eaten out by the diseases of fame had dreamed new books on this boat. He'd taught his sons to reel in something that feels like Moby Dick on this boat. He'd accidentally shot himself in both legs on this boat. He'd fallen drunk from the flying bridge on this boat. He'd written achy, generous, uplifting, poetic letters on this boat. He'd propositioned women on this boat. He'd hunted German subs on this boat. He'd saved guests and family members from shark attack on this boat. He'd acted like a bully…

Book cover of Chuck Berry: The Autobiography

Why did I love 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.

By Chuck Berry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chuck Berry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the original rock and rollers tells his own story, discussing his childhood in St. Louis, his first musical efforts and his subsequent stardom, and many of the controversial detours he has taken along the way

5 book lists we think you will like!

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