The best books about reimagining biography

Rachel Hope Cleves Author Of Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality
By Rachel Hope Cleves

Who am I?

I am a historian of sexuality who is fascinated by unknown stories that reveal the past to be way more complicated than we expect. I’ve written about same-sex marriage in early America, a teenage female poet of the American Revolution, a masculine woman who founded her own college, and a notorious British pederast. Now I’m working on the tale of a forgotten American sexual adventuress and jewel thief. I also have a longstanding research project about the history of food and sex from the eighteenth century to the present day.


I wrote...

Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality

By Rachel Hope Cleves,

Book cover of Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality

What is my book about?

The life of the writer Norman Douglas presents an impossible paradox: how could a man who was well known during his own lifetime for his sexual obsession with children have been so beloved by famous authors like D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, and Nancy Cunard, as well as by countless readers on both sides of the Atlantic? Answering that question puts the biographer (me) in an impossible situation, as I trace the social history of pederasty and discover that attitudes towards sex between men and children were far more accommodating in the first half of the twentieth century than they are now. Unspeakable is not just a sexual biography of a man who would now be considered a monster, it’s a reflection on how historians of sexuality can write about practices that are more taboo today than they were in the past.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Quest for Corvo

By A.J.A. Symons,

Book cover of The Quest for Corvo

Why this book?

Before Symons published The Quest for Corvo in 1934, many biographies were little more than hagiographies, or boring tomes about unblemished saints. Symons redefined biography by writing a mystery story, featuring himself as a historical detective seeking to understand how a character as disagreeable as Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, could have authored beautiful novels like Hadrian the Seventh.

The Quest for Corvo

By A.J.A. Symons,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Quest for Corvo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One day in 1925 a friend asked A. J. A. Symons if he had read Fr. Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh. He hadn't, but soon did, and found himself entranced by the novel -- "a masterpiece"-- and no less fascinated by the mysterious person of its all-but-forgotten creator. The Quest for Corvo is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Baron Corvo, an artist, writer, and frustrated aspirant to the priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction. But this singular work, subtitled "an experiment in biography," is also a remarkable self-portrait, a study of the obsession and…


Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

By Geoff Dyer,

Book cover of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

Why this book?

A funnier book has never been written about the anxieties and frustrations of a would-be biographer. Dyer’s memoir of his misadventures traveling around Sicily, New Mexico, and Britain while not writing the biography of D. H. Lawrence, is a hilarious and totally relatable tale of failure.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

By Geoff Dyer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Recounts the author's experiences visiting the places D.H. Lawrence lived while actively not working on a book about Lawrence and not writing his own novel.


The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

By Janet Malcolm,

Book cover of The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Why this book?

In my secret heart of hearts, I wrote my most recent book, Unspeakable, for an audience of one: Janet Malcolm. All her prose is sharp, but her anti-biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is spectacular in its exploration of the question: is it even possible to write a truthful biography?

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

By Janet Malcolm,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Is it ever possible to know 'the truth' about Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, which ended with her suicide?

In The Silent Woman, renowned writer Janet Malcolm examines the biographies of Sylvia Plath, with particular focus on Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame, to discover how Plath became an enigma in literary history.

The Silent Woman is a brilliant, elegantly reasoned inquiry into the nature of biography, dispelling our innocence as readers, as well as shedding a light onto why Plath's legend continues to exert such a hold on our imaginations.


All We Know: Three Lives

By Lisa Cohen,

Book cover of All We Know: Three Lives

Why this book?

Through sheer magic, Lisa Cohen manages to combine three lives that defy biography into a beautifully written group portrait of mid-century lesbian modernism. Although Cohen writes that “every biography is a disappointment of some kind,” her book about Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland thrilled me from start to finish.

All We Know: Three Lives

By Lisa Cohen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

All We Know is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

A revelatory biography of three glamorous, complex modern women

Esther Murphy was a brilliant New York intellectual who dazzled friends and strangers with an unstoppable flow of conversation. But she never finished the books she was contracted to write―a painful failure, and yet a kind of achievement.
The quintessential fan, Mercedes de Acosta had intimate friendships with the legendary actresses and dancers of the twentieth century. Her ephemeral legacy is the thousands of objects she collected to preserve the memory of those performers and to document…


Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

By Saidiya V. Hartman,

Book cover of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

Why this book?

The violence of the archives challenges the retelling of the lives of Black women, whose voices were rarely judged worthy of preservation by white society. Hartman makes art of the traces of the radical lives of Black women at the turn of the twentieth century, bringing her literary imagination to break open the archival traces her subjects left behind. 

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

By Saidiya V. Hartman,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Emperor Hadrian, travel, and World War 2?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Emperor Hadrian, travel, and World War 2.

Emperor Hadrian Explore 14 books about Emperor Hadrian
Travel Explore 184 books about travel
World War 2 Explore 1143 books about World War 2

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Possessed, Austen Years, and Romantic Outlaws if you like this list.