The Best Biographies I read in 2019

I read a lot of books. In 2019 I read almost 500 books, not counting the many, many, many picture books I read to my kids. We like reading. It’s a thing. I get asked a lot about what biographies I recommend. I think this is kind of funny, because I remember as recently as 5 years ago, I would have thought biographies are totally boring–why would anyone read one? Now they’ve become one of my go-to genres of reading. Real life, as they say, is often stranger than fiction. That may not be true, but real life usually does have a more enduring impact on our lives than fiction does, and that’s part of the allure of biographies for me. I read 20+ biographies in 2019, and I have here selected four that I think were the best. They give a range of recommendations for readers interested in different things. For good measure, I also included one I read in 2018 because it’s awesome.

The Big Fella by Jane Leavy

When I was in elementary school, Babe Ruth was still legendary. I don’t know if elementary school kids who obsess over baseball are still talking about “The Babe,” but I think that there is still probably some sheen of legend that covers the name Babe Ruth. Jane Leavy’s biography, The Big Fella, has a stated goal as an attempt to peel back some of that legend and get at the “real man” as well as true stories about his life.

I’m not entirely convinced Leavy totally succeeded at her goal, but that is also not really her fault. Peeling away the layers of legend is like peeling the layers of an onion, and there are multiple points (notably, how Ruth met his agent) that the Babe himself obscured with so many different “true” stories that getting at the truth seems an impossible task. Whether intentional or not, this meant that Babe Ruth will continue to have a legend built around him forever, because we can’t truly unmask every aspect of his life.

The structure of the biography is occasionally confusing, but this comes from someone who prefers a linear progression throughout a subject’s life.

What makes this biography so great is Leavy’s style and tone. It reads as though you, the reader, are getting a true look at the subject. You relate to the Babe in ways you might not have expected. His audacious feats, his glories, and his failures all seem to come to life and jump of the page. The Big Fella is a fascinating look at one of the most legendary figures in U.S. History.

Grant by Ron Chernow

I read Grant as part of my journey to read (at least) one biography per President in the history of the United States. Going in, I knew Grant as  a Civil War general who won the war, paying the butcher’s bill required to do so. I knew him as an ineffective President with a drinking problem. Coming out, I found that very few of the things I thought I knew about Grant were true. Chernow doesn’t set out to rehabilitate Grant, per se; instead, he sets out to find the truth of Ulysses S. Grant’s life, which turns out to be far more interesting and complex than received history has painted him.

Grant turned me into a defender of his Presidential legacy. It made me appreciate the man, even while acknowledging his faults. Chernow creates a stunning portrait that demands to be considered for those with any interest in U.S. history. More than that, he creates a sympathetic biography that makes readers think along the lines of decision-making the man himself may have traveled. It’s very, very well done.

My post outlining Grant’s life and accomplishments can be read here.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

Blight has created one of the most fascinating, monumental biographies I’ve ever read. Frederick Douglass is an absolute giant of American history, whether one is talking about moral, religious, or activist leadership. Time and again, I stopped reading in the middle of a page to reflect upon the powerful words of the subject, or upon his life choices and the way he challenged perceptions and received opinions. Blight weaves a narrative that both integrates Douglass’s own autobiographical content and also offers correctives and amplifications where needed. It is not just a great biography, it’s a great book, regardless of one’s tastes.

A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism by Kristin Kolbes Dumez

Katharine Bushnell is a woman who continues to influence modern theologians with her publications. A missionary, advocate for women, and astute thinker, her life story is told by Kristin Kolbes Dumez in this challenging narrative. I say it’s challenging because it touches upon the things we hold most dear. Regardless of one’s theological–or atheological–background, Bushnell’s life and thought will force readers to think about it. Have they really thought through their conclusions about men and women? Have they explored the biblical text as fully as they thought? Have they assumed that feminism and Christianity were complete opposites? Bushnell’s life will make readers think on these questions. And that, I think, is what great biographies ought to do: make us consider our own lives.

 Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

I read this biography at the end of 2018 and I frankly think it was cheated out of the best related work Hugo Award in the voting this year. Alec Nevala-Lee’s work here is a biography and history of four of the biggest names in early science fiction as well as a look at the “Golden Age” of the same. It is, in a word, astounding (I had to). As a science fiction fan, this was a must-read, and I was delighted by how enthralling the contents were.

There is no question that each of the subjects is profoundly problematic. Campbell’s racism, Asimov’s casual sexism combined with assaults, Heinlein’s… everything, and Hubbard’s myriad faults all have the light shown upon them. These men were not moral paragons. The fact that modern science fiction owes so much to them shouldn’t lead readers to reject science fiction, but it should lead them to think about what they’re consuming. Can we separate the fiction from the fact of the author? Is that even a question we should wonder about?

Alongside this tough look at sci-fi’s heroes, Nevala-Lee provides a hands-on look at the history of science fiction and how the ideas behind it were shaped through magazines, editors, and the like. This is an absolute must-read for any fan of science fiction, but I’d also recommend it to those interested in the intellectual history of the United States. Really, I just want more people to read and love it.


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!


Presidential Biographies: George Washington, #1

I begin my quest to read at least one biography per President at, well, the beginning: George Washington. After carefully perusing reviews online and discovering a pretty cool website in which some guy is reading enormous amounts of biographies of each President (My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies), I settled on the massive (800+ pages of text, more than 900 pages overall) Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the inaugural DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I settled on this biography because it seemed to be the right balance between comprehensive and readable. Apparently, multi-volume biographies (with 4 volumes, in one case!) of Presidents exist. Not for me. Yet, anyway. Chernow starts with a rather brief section about Washington’s early life, covers rather extensively his adult life pre-Presidency, segues into an overview of the first Presidency, and closes briefly with a look at the life and legacy left behind.

I found this biography to be quite fascinating. Though the details on Washington’s early life were fairly skimpy, they did help set the stage for the rest of his life. It was very interesting to read about how Washington felt like an outsider regarding the elite among whom he often walked, even practicing his penmanship to try to blend in better.

The story of Washington as soldier and, eventually, revolutionary shed much light on him as a person. He constantly strained against the confines of being a Colonial vs. a British Regular soldier and searched for more pay. He was quite proud. The image we get in school of Washington as invincible is very different from the Washington who suffered numerous bitter defeats in the Revolutionary War. Washington’s interactions with Native Americans and slaves were quite revealing, showing that he was far more brutal than even he wished to paint himself.

The Washington Presidency is unique in that it, perhaps more than any other term, helped shape the idea of what a President of the United States ought to be. He defined the role during his time in office, for better or ill. From what I could tell through the biography, he helped balance a fine line of asserting the power of the executive branch while also balancing partisanship. A great many accomplishments can be set before the Presidency of Washington, perhaps none so important as the peaceful ceding of power to the next President. But apart from that, he helped establish the national bank, bolstered the economy through increased trade, worked to restore American credit, built relationships with other countries, opened the Mississippi for more expansion, and more. It was a highly productive Presidency and he should get the credit that is his due.

That said, we should also not get into the realm of hero worship. As noted, the picture we get in schools in the United States is a kind of invincible lion who was simultaneously beastly in battle and the picture of peaceful rightness when it comes to the moral sphere. But Washington owned slaves (see more on this below), brutalized Native peoples, was full of pride, made wrong choices, lost battles, and pursued a married woman early in his adult life. It is vastly important to have a realistic picture of the man rather than an invented one, and Washington: A Life gives that.

None of this is to say the biography was perfect, however. Though Chernow doesn’t seem to pull punches in showing the ills that Washington committed himself to, he also acts as an apologist at points, particularly in regards to slavery and the First Nations. For example, he writes that “Washington was never sadistic or abusive toward slaves…” but then immediately goes on to discuss how he saw slaves as being in a fair economic exchange with their masters, how Washington mocked a slave who had injured an arm and demanded he still work, and more (495). Moreover, though Chernow continues to object that Washington even knew some of his slaves by name, he also allowed overseers to beat some to death or kill slaves through neglect. He was an absentee owner during his years at the White House, but did nothing to forestall ill treatment of the slaves. Though he wished to free slaves, allegedly, he continued to prioritize his economic well-being over that of other human beings. Indeed, even Chernow comments that Washington hardly saw slaves as truly human; he saw them just as most others of his era did: as property.

Chernow’s irksome comments regarding slavery are mirrored in his discussion of Washington’s treatment of Native Americans. Though Washington allegedly wished for more peaceful relations with First Nations peoples, and apparently understood why they may be angry enough to kill European “settlers” who were stealing their land, he did very little to actually offset these atrocities and showed no hesitation in executing them or burning their crops when it suited him as “just punishment.” The comments about Washington’s desire for peaceful relations ring rather hollow here.

All of this is to say that Washington was a deeply imperfect man. He had a great number of faults. Though it would be unfair, perhaps, to judge him by 21st century standards of morality, a strong corrective to our image of Washington as perfect, peaceful, and the like is also much-needed. I learned a great deal from Washington: A Life and recommend it highly. Be aware of some of the remaining apologetics of Washington, however.


My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington: By default, he ends up at the top of the list for now, but that’s not to downplay the greatness of his Presidency. For one, Washington basically defined the office. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

*Rankings not definitive


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!