This, as long-time Stevereads readers (and my long-suffering friends) may know, is the nerve center of my reading, my favorite of the genres in which I roam. More than historical fiction, which I’ve actually written (and whose self-published ranks I regularly patrol as the U.S. “Indie” Editor for the redoubtable Historical Novel Review), and more than natural history, which brings me such joy, and more even than history itself. As I’ve mentioned, I read more new books in 2014 than in any previous year of my life, and a whopping percentage of those were biographies – in fact, it’s quite possible that I read nearly every major mainstream biography published in 2014, and this despite an ominous trend that showed itself early and kept right on happening throughout the year: as even a glance at the list of winners will show, a great many of the subjects of these books were utterly dreadful people. So in 2014 I had the surreal experience of reading thousands of pages about people I would cross the street (or in some cases, the continent) to avoid. So 2014 will really stand out in my memory as the year the biographer’s art pulled more than its share of the weight! Here are the examples of that art from this year:
10. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – Swafford’s monumental book on the second-greatest composer of all time can’t do much with Beethoven’s repellant personality or personal hygiene, but everything it can do with the rest, it does with vast learning and elegant prose. You can read my full review here.
9. Rebel Yell by S. C. Wynne (Scribner) – Confederate general and American traitor Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is one of quite a few figures on this list I’d have thought no author could possibly make interesting, let alone sympathetic, for a stretch of several hundred pages, but Wynne somehow does just that. No student of the American Civil War can afford to miss this great book. You can read my full review here.
8. Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison (Doubleday) – You could fill a well-stocked room in a library with all the books and pamphlets that have been written about the Maid of Orleans (in fact, the venerable Boston Public Library used to have just such a space), so the odds against anybody writing a must-read new biography seemed impossibly long. But Harrison manages it. You can read my full review here.
7. Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900-1941 by John Rohl (Cambridge University Press) – This enormous conclusion to Rohl’s three-volume life of the Kaiser (translated by Sheila de Bellaigue and Roy Bridge) has as its core the part of the man’s life that changed history: his petulant escalation of various world crises helping to precipitate the First World War, and then his disastrous leadership of Germany during that war. And despite the book’s punishing physical dimensions (the egregiously-overpriced e-book is definitely the right option in this case), it’s endlessly involving to read.
6. The Literary Churchill by Jonathan Rose (Yale University Press) – The monsters just keep on coming in our 2014 biography list, but even in this case, the irritating tedium of the subject was entirely counteracted by the enormous narrative skill of the writer! Alongside everything else he was doing over the decades, Churchill wrote constantly for publication, and Rose sculpts a fascinating portrait out of all that deadline prose. You can read my full review here.
5. Bismarck: Sturm uber Europa by Ernst Engelberg (Siedler Verlag) – This one could technically have gone on the “Best Reprints” list, but Achim Engelberg put such extensive and loving care into shaping this wonderful single volume out of his late father’s magisterial two-volume biography of the Iron Chancellor that I wanted to included it here even though its content isn’t strictly new. The book is searchingly brilliant, and if some well-heeled American academic press ever undertakes an English-language translation, Engelberg’s masterpiece will get the wider readership it so thoroughly deserves.
4. Napoleon by Andrew Roberts (Viking) – Bonaparte has had over 50 biographies in the last 50 years alone, so it could reasonably be assumed there was nothing left to say about his rise to power, his reign of terror, his defeat and exile, his second rise to power, his second reign of terror, or his second defeat and exile. Roberts justifies his book on the basis of a newly-utilized trove of letters, but he needn’t have bothered: the only real justification for any book is the prose of its author, and in this case, Roberts produces an absolute winner. You can read my full review here.
3. Updike by Adam Begley (Harper) – Our monster-roundup, nearing completion, now advances far enough to include the milquetoast version that is lousy and forgotten 20th-Century novelist John Updike, the subject of this smart, sensitive, utterly fantastic biography by Adam Begley, who re-reads all of Updike’s novels even though they aren’t worth reading, re-lives all of Updike’s failed relationships even though not one single one of them reflects well on the “Rabbit, Regurgitated” author, and sifts through all of Updike’s whining, minatory correspondence. It’s a protracted, masterful examination, a hefty and elegant tombstone with which to bury forever a worthless career.
2. Stalin: Volume I: The Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin (The Penguin Press) – Kotkin is with his loathsome, psychotic subject for the long haul – this enormous volume is rumored to be the first of a grueling three – and although it isn’t possible to say this first volume humanizes its famous subject (all Kotkin’s research only reinforces every other biography ever written about the man: Stalin was simply a rabid animal), it does a spectacular job of illuminating him.
1. Faisal I of Iraq by Ali Allawi (Yale University Press) – I didn’t quite have the heart to end my Best Biographies list with a monster, and thankfully, I didn’t have to: Ali Allawi’s definitive and beautifully written biography is the life of a hero (albeit one who wasn’t lucky enough to live in heroic times) rings with bravery and idealism. Allawi follows King Faisal through all the adventures of his life and transmutes it all into the Best Biography of 2014. You can read my full review here.