Abraham Lincoln, American history, biographies, George Washington, John Adams, presidential biographies, Presidents, Ron Chernow
Unbelievably it has been two years since I started this extraordinary adventure through the best presidential biographies. My journey began with a collection of the best 125 presidential biographies I could find.
Once I started reading (and posting the results here) I asked you to alert me to great biographies which were missing from my collection. And you delivered!
During the past two years my list has blossomed to 190 books totaling almost 98,000 pages. Thanks to your suggestions I’ve been adding biographies almost as quickly as I can read them.
At the slow but steady pace of about sixty-five pages per day I originally expected to wrap up by Presidents’ Day 2015. After completing my first year – and having expanded the list by a third – my expected date of completion became the summer of 2016.
Now, after adding almost 30 more biographies over the past year, I expect to be done by Presidents’ Day 2017. But then I’ll have my “follow-up” list to read – it currently includes 26 biographies covering many of the first 21 presidents. It also includes presidential memoirs and autobiographies which I intentionally excluded from my first round.
2014 Highlights and Observations:
* 48 biographies read (almost 23,000 pages) covering 13 presidents; last year’s tally was 49 biographies with 23,000 pages covering 10 presidents
* 80 posts (coincidentally exactly the number of posts I made my first year)
* 128 countries visited (including 39 new countries this past year – welcome aboard Botswana, Namibia, Iceland and El Salvador, among others!)
* The United States provides 92% of my visitors; Canada, the UK, Australia and the Philippines round out the top 5.
* 30% of my visitors seem to be “regulars” who receive email notifications of new posts. Nearly 60% come from search engines like Google and Yahoo. About 10% of my visitors are referred by Twitter, Facebook and your blog links to my site (thank you!)
* Your favorite posts/pages over the past year:
#1 The Best Presidential Biographies
#2 The Best Biographies of Thomas Jefferson
#3 The Best Biographies of George Washington
#5 The Best Biographies of John Adams
#6 Recent/Upcoming Releases
#8 The Best Biographies of Abraham Lincoln
#9 Review of “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow
#10 The Best Biographies of Ulysses S. Grant
Almost 80% of all visitors check out the most popular page which contains my master list of presidential biographies. And I’m quite pleased to see that I’m slightly more popular (#4) than John Adams (#5). I suspect that will change soon.
* Finally, I’m always fascinated to see which books you investigate further after touring this site. These were the most popular over the past year:
#1 Washington: A Life (2010) by Ron Chernow
#2 The Life of Andrew Jackson (1988) by Robert Remini
#3 Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012) by Jon Meacham
#4 John Adams: A Life (1992) by John Ferling
#5 Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald Cole
#6 James Madison (2011) by Richard Brookhiser
#7 John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (1997) by Paul Nagel
#8 James Madison: A Biography (1971) by Ralph Ketcham
#9 James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (1971) by Harry Ammon
#10 Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin
What’s coming next in 2015?
January: Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley
February through May: Teddy Roosevelt (!) and William Taft
June: Woodrow Wilson
July: Warren G. Harding
August: Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover
Sept through Dec: Franklin D. Roosevelt (!)
The next year should be exciting – not that Johnson, Hayes, Arthur, Garfield and Cleveland haven’t been terrific. Stay tuned!
Billy Watson said:
Congrats on your two years journey. I am enjoying it also though at a slower pace. I am also adding books to the list and just noticed your additional books added recently. I may never get through! Again, thanks for sharing your project that inspired me to get through. I will finish Grant by Jean Smith today. Favorite book so far is Team of Rivals by Goodwin. Unbelievable book
I absolutely loved “Grant” by Jean Edward Smith, and “Team of Rivals” was the book that inspired my journey! Let me know when you decide what you’re reading next!
Darren Seacliffe said:
For Herbert Hoover, there’s a 6 book series you may want to check out. That, I feel is the best biography of Herbert Hoover out there on the market. I didn’t see it on the list of titles you were proposing to read so please pardon me for pointing that out:
These are the titles:
The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer 1874-1914
The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Humanitarian, 1914-1917
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Imperfect Visionary, 1918-1928
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933
The Life of Herbert Hoover: Keeper of the Torch, 1933-1964
Thanks – great suggestion! Looks like it will be time consuming (and maybe somewhat expensive) to collect all of these, but I’m going to look into it. Looks like a great series.
Amy T Schubert said:
Congratulations!!!! I’ve been reading U.S. History since fall 2008 and I’m only as far as ~John Tyler (slower reader and not sticking just to presidents), so I am *loving* following your journey!!
I’ve been VERY tempted to deviate from the presidents when I encounter someone interesting for whom a great biography seems to exist. Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, Seward, Napoleon and many others come to mind. I also have nothing better to do while sitting on planes and waiting for soccer & swim practices to end so time is often not a problem(!)
Amy T Schubert said:
Oh man! You’re missing SO MUCH!!! Alexander Hamilton, alone. 🙂
Chad Paskiewicz said:
Congrats! I have enjoyed your posts and journey. Look forward to each new email alert that I get. I cross-reference this website on most of my presidential book purchases.
I’m always referring back to your “best biographies” post. Counting on your list as I work my way through all the presidents. So thanks for doing all the heavy lifting for me.
…and thanks for creating my “must visit” list! I’m going to try to make some real progress during the summer of 2015 with my kids (who, shockingly enough, are willing to visit historical sites if it means Road Trip!)
Thank you for your meticulous record keeping and reporting here! Your blog is my one stop shop for researching which book I want to track down for my next read. I’ve just started my “journey” this summer reading one book (usually whichever one you label as your favorite) about each president and I’ve made it to James Monroe. After each book, I make a list of topics that I want to learn more about. That list is getting out of control and I’m only through the first 5! Keep up the awesome work!
I feel your pain! I’ve got a follow-up list of non-presidents I’m interested in reading about and it’s getting out of hand. And if you’re at Monroe, you’ve still got lots of great reading until you get into the presidential Bermuda Triangle (everything between Andrew Johnson and Benjamin Harrison from what I can tell).
Happy Bloggiversary Steve! I’m so impressed that you manage to read 65 pages a day! I don’t know where the time goes, but it has been pretty rare to read that much in a sitting lately. I enjoy your posts, and look forward to the upcoming ones. Camille
John Scribner (@Scribdecahedron) said:
Thanks for all the work you put in, I find your site to be incredibly useful! I’ve been reading for about a year now, and you’ve helped me pick biographies for Adams (Ferling), Jefferson (Meacham), Madison (Ketcham), and Monroe (Ammon). I took a risk, and went with Fred Kaplan’s John Quincy Adams (which I suggest you add to your followup list, if you haven’t already!). I’m just now starting into Remini’s three volume set on Jackson. You haven’t steered me wrong yet. Here’s to another year of excellent biographies, thank you for paving the way!
Thanks for the feedback, and I do have Kaplan’s JQA on my follow-up list. Glad to hear you think it’s worthwhile! I think you’ll enjoy Remini’s series on Andrew Jackson – solid series on a very interesting personality!
I have also really enjoyed your site (and work). I teach the presidency to college students, but the course is more focused on the institution than biographies — I like tracking your journey through time. And for the future…… You should add Robert Seager’s book “And Tyler Too: A Biography of John Tyler and Julia Gardiner Tyler” to your list — I think perhaps the best biography of the man.
And since you are rapidly approaching the 20th century: John Milton Cooper wrote a very readable double biography of TR and Woodrow Wilson called “The Warrior and the Priest: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.” I see you have his recent bio of Wilson on your list. You may find this book an interesting comparison between the two (much as Goodwin’s book is a double bio of TR and Taft).
And finally, you may consider Jean Yarbrough’s book “Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition.” It won the Neustadt Award a couple of years ago, given out by the American Political Science Association to the best book on the presidency for that year. It’s not a light read, since it constitutes a biography of Roosevelt seen through his own writings. In my readings about TR’s life, I find that biographers may touch on TR’s political views, but focus far more on his actions. This book is easily the best book available that plunges deeply into TR’s own views through the lens of his owns writings to see what he really believed and why he believed it. It really adds a deeper layer to the focus on events found in most biographies. To be fair, most of our presidents were not “men of letters.” But the TR-Taft-Wilson sequences gives us three men in a row who were very intelligent and wrote lots of stuff for us to consider. Yarbrough really works to answer the question of what TR really thought about things, and how that affected his life and policies. As I said, it’s not a quick read, but if you want a complete view of what TR was all about, I think it’s essential.
Looking forward to Year 3!
Thanks much! I’ve looked into each of these and wonder how I missed them before. I’ve go the Tyler book on my follow-up list, I’ll put the TR/WW double biography under Wilson (perhaps my first on him as a natural transition into his presidency) and the Yarbrough book appears dense (as you suggest) but not terribly lengthy. The only question is whether I tackle Yarbrough toward the beginning of TR (when I still have some fresh energy for him) or near the end (so pull everything together).
Your course, by the way, sounds fascinating. Particularly now that I’m halfway down a path where I’ve gotten to see the presidency from the bottom-up, from the perspective of its occupants, rather than top-down from the perspective of the office itself.
And very much looking forward to McKinley through FDR in Year 3 but TR/Taft/Wilson in particular (none of whom I’m particularly familiar with…Taft in particular).
I’m inclined to think that some familiarity with TR’s life would be good before you tackle Yarbrough, but whether it’s toward the beginning or toward the end — not sure it matters. It would interesting, I suppose, to read all of the traditional biographies first, and THEN read Yarbrough, just to see if she really brings something new to the project.
I fear you will be disappointed with the McKinley options — I hope not. But he’s a very interesting president who is greatly underrated, and who desperately needs a good modern biography. Same with Taft. Goodwin does a great job with Taft, but since her book ends in 1912, she ignores nearly the final two decades of his life. In my view both McKinley and Taft come off looking like much better men than their flashier successors — SPOILER ALERT — but I’ll be interested to see what you say when you get there.
And speaking as a political scientist, when you are all finished with your project, you might be interested the best one-volume history of the presidency — “The American Presidency: Origins and Development,” by Sidney Milkis and Michael Nelson. It’s a very well-written survey that brings it all together, from the perspective of the office itself.
Ed Murphy said:
Congratulations and thank you for providing this great resource. I have been following your blog since you were reading Sandburg’s books on Lincoln. It inspired me to resume my project of reading a biography of every President in order. I had stopped some years ago after reading McFeely’s book about Grant. I recently finished Walworth’s books about Wilson and now I am reading Francis’ book about Harding.
I noticed that you recently added Sievers’ set about Harrison and Pringle’s set about Taft. Both are very good books. Sievers’ books especially were very well written.I enjoyed them very much and I hope you do to.
Good luck in year 3.
Thanks for your note – comments like yours definitely serve as inspiration for the moments when I wonder whether doing this is really worthwhile. (As you know better than most, not every president can be as interesting as Lincoln, Jackson or Washington…and not every biography is written by a gifted writer.)
I did just add the Sievers series to my list (in fact I just started Volume 1 yesterday and so far I love it!) as well as the Pringle series on Taft. Both series were recommended by visitors who have taken the same trek through the presidents.
I have to admit to some trepidation about Harding (once I get through B.Harrison it seems to be smooth sailing until I get to him) so I’d be interested in your take on the Francis bio once you have a view. As I’ve discovered, mediocre presidents who are blessed with great biographers can be fascinating subjects irrespective of their lack of success in the White House.
Good luck on your renewed journey and let me know how it goes!
Where is the follow-up list of books? Seems like it used to be below the main list, but it’s not there anymore.
I’ve moved the follow-up list from the very end of the long primary list to the end of each respective president’s section.
The Presidentiad said:
I laud you for your efforts. This is truly a fascinating and worthwhile endeavor. I’m working on reading a biography for each president and then blogging about what I’ve read. I want to know, before you started your project, did you do any sort of “organization” of what you read? Or did you just dive in and start?
I spent a couple years collecting what I thought were the better 1 or 2 (sometimes 3) biographies on each president based on Amazon or Goodreads ratings, or by word-of-mouth. For several presidents it was hard to find more than one that seemed “acceptably good” and for some it was hard to narrow down the choicesbecause there seemed to be so many great ones. I thought about throwing in the towel and just reading those with the reputation of being the best-of-the-best (starting with Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin). That’s more or less when I decided I needed to back up, collect more biographies per president, read them systematically in order of the presidency, log my journey and find out for myself (and whoever else was interested) which ones were *really* the best. And the rest, as they say, is history-