The best historical biographies to help you make sense of your own life

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always loved well-told stories of people who came before us, because I’ve always assumed that their lives offer us lessons. Subtle ones, perhaps, but important ones. That’s how, many years ago, I came across the Parallel Lives of Plutarch, who’s been called history’s first biographer. Eventually, I decided to have my own stab at interpreting the biographies of historical figures, and to weave history, philosophy, and psychology into (hopefully) gripping stories. As a journalist and a dual citizen of the US and Germany who’s also lived in the UK and Asia, I naturally looked all over the world for the right characters. And I still do.

I wrote...

Hannibal and Me: What History's Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure

By Andreas Kluth,

Book cover of Hannibal and Me: What History's Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure

What is my book about?

Every life has successes and failures, triumphs and disasters. The question is what these ups and downs reveal about you and make you become. You can find answers in the stories of other people. Hannibal, the Carthaginian who almost conquered Rome, can teach you how to win life’s battles, but also warns you about losing the peace. His Roman enemy Fabius shows you how to accept setbacks and endure. Hannibal’s nemesis, Scipio, inspires you to reinvent yourself.

To help you see yourself in their stories I compare these three to people who’ll be more familiar. Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pablo Picasso, Tiger Woods, Cleopatra, Amy Tan, and several more – they’re all in the story. But really that story is all about… you.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Endurance

Andreas Kluth Why did I love this book?

This is one of the best survival guides ever, and one of the most compelling looks into how human beings do or don’t accept a disastrous situation and (literally) flow with it. It’s the story of the explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew, after their ship, the aptly named Endurance, got stuck in the Antarctic ice and then crushed by it. They were stranded, through the permanent darkness of the polar winter, on floating ice floes—with only blubber to eat, and no fiber at all (you work out the consequences). No shelter. No light. Water and waves underneath you. But they avoided going insane, and Shackleton figured out when to fight (the ice and the sea, in this case)—and when not to fight, in order to drift.

By Alfred Lansing,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In August 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton boarded the Endurance and set sail for Antarctica, where he planned to cross the last uncharted continent on foot. In January 1915, after battling its way through a thousand miles of pack ice and only a day's sail short of its destination, the Endurance became locked in an island of ice. Thus began the legendary ordeal of Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men. For ten months the ice-moored Endurance drifted northwest before it was finally crushed between two ice floes. With no options left, Shackleton and a skeleton crew attempted a near-impossible…

Book cover of Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Andreas Kluth Why did I love this book?

The life of Julius Caesar, as brought to life by Goldsworthy, remains one of the most fascinating tales of ups and downs, boldness and overreach, war, statecraft, and propaganda (yes, he mastered that too). And adventure. Even if you think you know him, you probably don’t. What, for example, did he do after he was kidnapped at age 25 by pirates? Let’s just say you don’t want to be the pirates. But ultimately you don’t want to be Caesar either. Not least, you want to be careful with wannabe Caesers today, because he was also the most effective populist in history.

By Adrian Goldsworthy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The story of one of the most brilliant, flamboyant and historically important men who ever lived.

'A superb achievement' LITERARY REVIEW

'Combines scholarship with storytelling to bring the ancient world to life: in his masterly new CAESAR he shows us the greatest Roman as man, statesman, soldier and lover' Simon Sebag Montefiore


From the very beginning, Caesar's story makes dazzling reading. In his late teens he narrowly avoided execution for opposing the military dictator Sulla. He was decorated for valour in battle, captured and held to ransom by pirates, and almost bankrupted himself by staging games for…

Book cover of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Andreas Kluth Why did I love this book?

This book wouldn’t normally count as historical biography, but to me it’s one of the most inspiring tales about grit. It’s the true story of a group of boys like Joe Rantz, who grew up poor in the woods of Washington State and was abandoned by his family. Still, he claws himself through life, picking up skills, courage, and stamina along the way, and finds a ramp to meaning and success in rowing. The book would be worth reading just for the worm’s-eye view of athletic disciplinethe pain and perseverance inside the boat and outside. But then these boys, having learned to be a team, find themselves in Berlin during Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Olympics: From the woods of Washington to center stage in world history.

By Daniel James Brown,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Boys in the Boat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The #1 New York Times-bestselling story about the American Olympic rowing triumph in Nazi Germany-from the author of Facing the Mountain.

Soon to be a major motion picture directed by George Clooney

For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times-the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.

It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the…

Book cover of Einstein: His Life and Universe

Andreas Kluth Why did I love this book?

Some of life’s greatest adventures, triumphs, and disasters are intellectual (which is why I compare Albert Einstein to Hannibal in my own book). As a young iconoclast, Einstein completely blew up the conventional wisdom in science. He found a new way of thinking about gravity, time, space, light, and the whole universe. Being eccentric, he came to embody our notions about the mad scientist. As a human being, he could be endearing but also cruelit’s not clear whether he ever met, or cared about, his disabled daughter Lieserl. But the most intriguing lesson of his life to me is that even such a genius could get mentally stuck. It’s as if, in his later years, his imagination had been thrown into prison.

By Walter Isaacson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

By the author of the acclaimed bestseller 'Benjamin Franklin', this is the first full biography of Albert Einstein since all of his papers have become available. How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson's biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom. Based on newly released personal letters of Einstein, this book explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk - a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn't get a teaching job or a doctorate - became…

Book cover of Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Andreas Kluth Why did I love this book?

Most obviously, this is a riveting account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the American West all the way to the Pacific, and I would recommend the book just for that. But to my own surprise, it also becomes a disquieting psychological study of Lewis, the alpha to Clark’s beta. Their triumph turns Lewis into a national celebrity. But somehow this fame ruins the young man. Unlike Clark, he can’t maintain fulfilling relationships or find a new purpose in life. He drinks himself into oblivion, until he kills himself in his despair, in one of the messiest suicides in one of the seediest places. The lesson here is that success can ruin you, if you’re not careful.

By Stephen E. Ambrose,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Undaunted Courage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A chronicle of the two-and-a-half year journey of Lewis and Clark covers their incredible hardships and the contributions of Sacajawea.

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The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

John Winn Miller's THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C, a semifinalist in the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, captures the breathless suspense of early World War II in the North Atlantic. Captain Jake Rogers, experienced in running his tramp steamer through U-boat-infested waters to transport vital supplies and contraband to the highest bidder, takes on his most dangerous cargo yet after witnessing the oppression of Jews in Amsterdam: a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution.

The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…

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Interested in explorers, Julius Caesar, and Thomas Jefferson?

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