Best Books of 2016 – Biography!
Much to my delight, 2016 was another furiously busy year for biographies – and mostly a very good one, with strong entries appearing several times in every month. Biography is my own favorite type of book to read, and there were some months when I read so many good ones I could temporarily dream of reading nothing else (although if such a job were to present itself – say, the biography editor of some big academic press – I know I’d turn it down; there are too many treasures scattered everywhere across the literary landscape to justify provincial reading)(but still, it’s a nice little dream). This made for an excellent reading year, but it also made the process of narrowing things down to this list extra difficult. Nevertheless! Here are the best 10 biographies of the year:
10. Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris (Cambridge University Press) – We begin with a biography that likely isn’t for the novice, a deeply abstruse examination of David Hume’s personal identity as illuminated in his writing. James Harris does a fantastic job of keeping the whole endeavor mentally thrilling, although I’d imagine many readers would appreciate the book more if they read a full-dress biography first.
9. Orson Welles Vol. 3: One-Man Band by Simon Callow (Viking) – This third, penultimate volume in Simon Callow’s monumental biography of Orson Welles covers the years from 1967 to 1964, during which Welles was a loudly disapproving expat who abandoned the standard studio system and made some of his greatest movies on his own hook. As usual in this multi-volume masterpiece, Callow brings his own priceless trove of theatre experience to the task of trying to explain the ways of Welles to lesser mortals.
8. Frederick the Great by Tim Blanning (Random House) – I went into this volume skeptical that it could even begin to compete with Robert Asprey’s life of the great King of Prussia, which came out thirty years ago. But Tim Blanning does a nimble, smartly readable job – not a better book than Asprey’s but a worthy other book on the same subject. You can read my full review here
7. Frederick Barbarossa by John Freed (Yale University Press) – This sprawling life of the magnetic 12th century German emperor is not only stuffed to the rafters with crisp, judiciously-chosen learning but also charged with a kind of arch, humorous creativity that makes the whole thing an improbably light read. You can read my full review here
6. Bush by Jean Edward Smith (Simon & Schuster) – Speaking of improbable! As great as my admiration for biographer Jean Edward Smith has always been, I was certain that this book, an account of the life and presidency of a Chief Executive whose term in office was not only incredibly divisive but also incredibly recent, would be skewed and lopsided and much more illuminating of Smith than the subject. But the book was a revelation of objectivity and insight.
5. The Idealist by Justin Peters (Scribner) – This book about hacker and Internet-era thinker Aaron Swartz, who killed himself in 2013, likewise bristles with insights, although they’re much harder to read in this case, since the whole subject of Swartz is maddeningly frustrating both for the elements it includes and the elements it will never include. This is the first essential book on Swartz, and it may also be the last word. You can read my full review here.
4. Henry IV by Christopher Given-Wilson (Yale University Press) – Historian Chris Given-Wilson faced a nearly impossible task in pulling the life story of this pivotal monarch out of the background where it’s always been relegated by the more famous story of his son, who was immortalized by Shakespeare. I was amazed and pleased by how smoothly Given-Wilson managed to succeed. You can read my full review here
3. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub – Recent years have seen a small boom in very good popular biographies of John Quincy Adams, and that trend continues with this excellent, appropriately acerbic political life of the country’s sixth president and most conscientious Congressman. You can read my full review here
2. Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey (Sarah Critchton Books) – Not in a million years would I have imagined that any author could make an epic, enthralling book out of the life story of a brittle, mantid social climber like Helen Gurley Brown, but Gerri Hirshey somehow does it, giving the irrepressible author of Sex and the Single Girl the kind of chatty, tough, knowing biography she herself would have loved to think she merited.
1. The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter (Simon & Schuster) – If Helen Gurley Brown was an unlikely subject for a toweringly good biography, how much more so Julia Ward Howe, the brilliant but icy poet, suffragette, and abolitionist who gave to the world the bloodthirsty lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? And yet Elaine Showalter approaches the woman’s life and times with an almost novelistic gusto in this, the best biography of 2016. You can read my full review here.
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