Sometimes there is nothing like a 900-page biography. Most of the time though, nobody has time for such a thing. Especially with many modern biographers who refuse to take a stand that resembles judgement towards their subjects.
After all, we read biographies to learn and improve ourselves, not to simply accumulate facts about someone we’ll never meet.
This leads to one of my favorite categories of books I like to recommend: moral biographies. That is, short biographical sketches about great men and women in history, written with an eye towards practical application and advice. As in, have a moral rather than about morality. They are often more anecdotal than historical, apocryphal than accurate but they get the job done. (Incidentally, this was the model I tried to base my book The Obstacle Is The Way on, though I hardly consider myself in the same league.)
Below are some of my favorites. I hope you enjoy them.
How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told By Themselves by Orison Swett Marden
Written in 1901 these are uplifting business oriented biographies of men like Marshall Field, John D Rockefeller, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and women like Helen Gould and Julia Ward Howe (creator of Battle Hymn of the Republic). I was referred this book by Maria Popova over at Brainpickings and loved it—I’ve referred to it many times since reading it.
Lives of Eminent Philosophers Volumes I & II by Diogenes Laertius
Ironically, Diogenes’ most famous biography in this collection is of the other Diogenes—Diogenes the Cynic. Other excellent and illustrative sketches include Zeno, Ariston, Cleanthes and Chrysippus the Stoic. Heraclitus is another great biography. All of these vary in length. Zeno is over a 150 pages, Herillus (not to be confused with Heraclitus) is 2 pages. But regardless of length, they are all quite good. My favorite little quirk of the book is Diogenes’ weird poem that he writes about each philosopher and of course the credulity with which he reports on their unusual deaths (on that note, you may also like the book The Book of Dead Philosophers, a book on how many of the world’s most famous philosophers supposedly died.)
Lives of the Later Caesars by Anonymous
Written by an anonymous author (possibly multiple) in the 4th century, these biographies are a mix of myth, legend and fact about some of the most powerful men who ever lived: the Roman emperors. We have Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Avidius Cassius, Severus and countless others. I’m sure you can guess my favorite subject. Also try The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius Translated by the peerless Robert Graves, these are more biographies of the Roman emperors—from Julius Ceasar to Domitian.
Clearly the master of this genre, Plutarch wrote biographies of famous Greeks and Romans around the year 100 AD. As always, I tend to default to the Penguin collections. I strongly recommend Plutarch’s Lives Vol. I & II, Essays, and The Makers of Rome: Nine Lives. His book On Sparta is also a collection of biographies (and aphorisms) from the famous Spartans. There is a reason that Shakespeare based many of his plays on Plutarch—not only are they well-written and exciting but they exhibit everything that is good and bad about the human condition. Greed, love, pain, hate, success, selflessness, leadership, stupidity—it’s all there.
You can argue that the master heir to this tradition is Robert Greene. What is the 48 Laws of Power but a series of biographies—moral lessons—from interesting figures in history? Naturally when I say moral I don’t mean morality, I mean the stories have a moral. From Robert Greene you can learn about Napoleon, Machiavelli, Cortez, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, FDR, Temple Grandin, PT Barnum, and 50 Cent in an accessible way that is really quite difficult to replicate anywhere else.
Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy
Written by President Kennedy when he was bedridden after back surgery, Profiles in Courage recounts the inspiring acts of eight different American Senators, including John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Robert A. Taft. Kennedy had recently been elected as the junior Senator from Massachusetts and was inspired to write a book after reading a passage from The Price of Union about an act of courage by John Quincy Adams while serving in the Senate. It was heartening to read about Senators willing to cross party lines and stand up for their principles given the current state of our Congress.
The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari
A friend and peer of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael Titian and all the other great minds of the Renaissance sat down in 1550 and wrote biographical sketches of the people he knew or had influenced him. What I like about this book is that the profiles are not about statesman or generals but artists. There are so many great lessons about craft and psychology within this book. The best part? It was written by someone who actually knew what he was talking about, not some art snob or critic, but an actual artist and architect of equal stature to the people he was documenting.
Founders At Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston
Now this one is certainly a little less historical than the others, if only because most of the profiles are about companies founded in the last ten years. Written by Jessica Livingston, a founder of YCombinator, the book profiles some of the hottest and most successful startups in Silicon Valley history. It shows how the founders manage to create massive growth, usually with very few resources. Now I’m not saying that companies like Hot or Not compare with the accomplishments of Pericles or Da Vinci, but you can certainly see how this book captures a moment in time—and its leading men and women—and what that means. This is the most current book on the list (besides mine) but I think many of you will like it. Plus you can learn a lot about the tech scene in one swoop.
If you never took a history course, hell if your parents never taught you anything, these little books could help. They show us how to live and how not to live. And best of all, you can read about a bunch of different people in one book.
What we choose to do with that information is up to us, of course. I hope you all use it wisely and get as much out of it as I did.
And if you have room for another book of such stories, try my book The Obstacle Is The Way for stories about Amelia Earhart, Arthur Ashe, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Abraham Lincoln.