Who doesn’t like a great story about a great life?  Well, almost no one.  That is why biographies and autobiographies have always been and continue to be big sellers.  I have read many bios over the years, but my first one was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.  I read it for a book report in grammar school.  Years later I saw the movie with Cicely Tyson and that as one of the earliest moments of my life when I was aware of the snobbish feeling of having read a book that lesser people will only experience through the lesser medium of film.  If that feeling is a sin, I apologize for it, but it is still something I enjoy, for one of my favorite lines ever is, “But in the book . . .”

Sadly for Ernest J. Gaines, his history of Jane Pittman does not make my list of top biographies because I later tragically learned that there is no real Jane Pittman, so there is no autobiography.  The whole thing was a novel under the guise of false pretenses, which is very clever way to fool a 5th grader.

You can be sure, though, that my top three biographies are legitimate.

Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Eric Metaxas

Dietrich BonhoefferMetaxas is simply one of the better writers in the world right now, Christian or otherwise.  This exhaustive biography of the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer brings the background of a familiar story to life.  It is inspiring, convicting, and deeply moving.  Bonhoeffer’s story itself is great, but Metaxas gentle and slowly growing drumbeat to rising action accentuates the tragedy of Bonhoeffer’s death.

My Review of Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

My Review of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers

Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry

Of all the biographies I’ve read, this is probably the thinnest.  The truth is we don’t have a lot of information about Crazy Horse, the famed Sioux warrior, but that doesn’t stop McMurtry from making the most of what we do know.  He lays out the lies and betrayal of the United States, the diabolical conundrum before the Sioux and other native peoples, and the inevitable sacrfices of culture that come with the passage of time.

I have another reason for loving this book.  McMurtry relates the devastating toll of relying upon white people with the example of fishing hooks.  For generations past, Native Americans made fishhooks from bone.  When they started trading with white people, they began to use metal fishing hooks.  A generation later, and only a generation later, when conflict arose between the two, the Sioux went hungry because they had already forgotten how to make fishing hooks from bone.  All it takes is one generation for institutional memory and competency to vanish.

I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This, Bob Newart

Memoir would be a better word for this than biography.  Since I will not be having a memoir section, this will have to do.  Celebrities have memoirs, and Bob Newhart is a celebrity.

Shouldn’t is a very funny book, but that is not the only reason I love it.  I love it because it illustrates that success isn’t always instant and doesn’t always happen when we are young.  In this memoir Newhart details how it was relatively late in life before he had any real success at all in entertainment.  That is encouraging to us all, but especially those of us who are over forty and wondering if the best is not already behind us.

So these are my three top biographies.  What three biographies do you recommend as the best?








  1. When I read Metaxes biography of Bonhoeffer I kept telling my wife, “But, I don’t want him to die!”. I put it in the top 5 of my favorite biographies. I loved McMurray’s Crazy Horse as well. Haven’t read “Shouldn’t” yet…prolly won’t. 🙂

    One of my favorite bios is McCullough’s “Truman” and “Washington: A Life” by Chernow.

  2. Amazing Grace: William WIlberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas: Much as I loved Bonhoeffer, I think Metaxas’ bio of Wilberforce is a better book. It’s better written, shorter, and not quite as dry. And while Bonehoeffer did a lot of great things, Metaxas points out that Wilberforce was largely responsible for a shift in thinking from “slavery is okay, economically necessary, and doesn’t hurt anyone” to “slavery is a human rights violation and a great moral evil.” That’s a relatively young idea in the history of humanity, and Wilberforce was largely responsible for it.

    Decision Points, by George W. Bush: Whether you agree with Bush’s politics or not, this is a great book. It’s very well-written, and there are a lot of places where you can almost hear it in Bush’s voice/accent! That tells me that he probably did a lot/most of the actual writing himself, which isn’t all that common these days. It sheds a lot of light on why he made the choices/decisions he made. And one nice thing–Bush is just a really classy guy. He could have been vitriolic and vengeful–certainly he had reason to be–but he wasn’t. He comes across as a strong but very gracious leader. Highly recommend this book.

    John Adams, by David McCullough: John Adams could certainly be a curmudgeon, and he had his enemies and made his mistakes, but I think he’s sometimes unfairly considered a “second-tier” founding father. We think of George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, or we think of the real rebels like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, but folks like John Adams sort of get glossed over. The truth is that Adams was a significant force in the move toward American independence. In addition, he was married to Abigail, who is one of my personal heroes. Their marriage was a wonderful partnership, enduring, at one point, an 8-year separation. One can blame that separation for many of the problems the Adams children eventually ended up enduring, but there’s no question that Abigail and John’s faithfulness to each other over that time period is an all-too-rare example these days.

    • the wilberforce bio was exceptional, but i think i just lean in toward bonhoeffer a bit more, likely because i was already a fan of bonhoeffer’s theology before i knew so much about his life.
      i can easily see me reading w.’s bio this summer. i wonder if it is available as an audio-book? i need something for the car ride to disneyworld and that might be a good one. thans for the recommednation.
      mccullough is an outstanding writer and historian. i have him pegged later in these lists in a different category, although not for the adams bio. however, you will not get me to disagree with your pick here because i love mccullough.
      amy–thanks for commenting, you add so much wisdom and experience to this discussion thread. thanks.

      • I suspect that one might favor Wilberforce or Bonhoeffer according to how/why one discovered them and what one’s particular leanings are. I can see why you, being a pastoral/theological sort, would prefer to read about a theologian. For me, human trafficking, slavery, and human rights are such a huge issue–sort of my personal soapbox–that the Wilberforce bio influenced me a lot more, I think. I like theology, but I do tend to veer more toward human rights issues.

        I think the W. bio is on audiobook somewhere. Would be cool if he read it . . . 🙂 But even if you listen to it, you should at least get a library copy just to look at the photos in it. There are some really good ones in there. 🙂

      • it would be sooooooo cooooooo if president bush read the audio book, but alas, it has a professional narrator. i looked. whenever i listen to a book i always get a hard copy because i am a bibliophile and want them in library. a book with paper can always be referenced, checked, and is independent of digital demons. i’m not against eBooks, and even read some things on my iPad, but i always want the paper copy too.

        i like your personal soapbox. don’t climb off of it.

  3. I haven’t read the biographies mentioned here, though they are on my list. My favorites of the ones I have read are Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, Miller’s biography of Jonathan Edwards, and the two Chesterton biographies of St. Thomas and St. Francis. I know I just cheated there.

    • carroll, we’ll let you cheat because you cheated with chesterton and saints thomas and francis. I mean, that’s gotta count for something. I loved isaacson’s franklin biography too. isaacson is another writer who does a very good job with all of his subjects.
      thanks for adding to the discussion.

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