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.
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!
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