Just over 6 years ago I set out to read a single great biography for each president. Unfortunately I had no way of knowing which one for each was the very best, so I decided to read multiple biographies of every president and decide for myself.
My original plan involved 125 books and a 3-year timetable. But with new biographies published every year – and dozens of excellent suggestions from you – that once-modest journey ballooned to 6 years and 240 biographies.
Very early on I knew there had to be an efficient way to save my notes, track my progress and share my thoughts. With a modest investment of time and a liberal use of search engines (“how do I start a blog?”)…this site was born!
The style of my reviews has evolved over time, but my philosophy behind them has not: I am essentially writing them for myself.
They are what I would share with my younger self if I had could travel back in time to that fateful week in 2012; they convey what I wish I had known when trying to decide which one biography to read for each president.
Along the way I learned a great deal, of course. One of the least surprising revelations: reading good biographies is an easy and enjoyable endeavor, but writing good reviews is surprisingly hard. So I can only imagine the stress, strain, angst and madness involved in writing a presidential biography.
My hat is off to all who have walked that particular path.
– 44 presidents, 240 biographies and 2,243 days
– 123,546 pages read
– 365 website posts (totaling ~220,000 words)
– 5,000+ pages of notes taken (interesting facts, notable quotes, etc.)
– 1.6 million website views by ~250,000 people from 185 countries
– 9,000 comments posted / emails received
– at least 350,000 spam comments filtered out (thanks WordPress!)
Ratings Summary & Philosophy:
For me, the ideal presidential biography often feels like a work of fiction: wonderfully descriptive and utterly engaging. But it also possesses remarkable historical merit: broad in scope, extremely well-researched, penetrating and insightful, revealing and thought-provoking.
I appreciate biographers who take the time to collect more data than they present; who dissect, analyze, synthesize and distill; who uncover and reveal; who connect the past to the present in a given era; who follow the arc of a person’s evolution and maturation; who ask how and why someone followed a particular path.
In a great presidential biography I also expect to learn what motivated someone to seek the presidency; whether that person possessed the skills required by the nation in that moment; whether (and how) that person adapted to the demands of the most daunting job in the world; how that president altered (for better or worse) the course of the nation; and what legacy that person left behind.
Writing a great biography is a tall order, to be sure.
Along the way I came to appreciate the risk of providing and relying upon numeric ratings. They are blunt, one-dimensional objects which tend to obscure nuance and mask complexity. Two books with an identical score can possess very different strengths and weaknesses. And, like flavors of ice cream, different people will often walk away from the same experience with a very different reaction.
Of the books I read, 234 presidential biographies received ratings:
– One biography received 5 stars: Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” (*)
– 89 biographies (38%) were rated “4” or higher
– The median biography received ~3¾ stars
– 26 biographies (11%) received 3 or fewer stars
– The lowest-rated biography received 2 stars
My subjective ratings assessment:
4½ to 5 stars = Excellent
4 to 4¼ stars = Very Good
3¾ stars = Good
3½ stars = Fair
If I were to re-rate this set of biographies with the benefit of hindsight I would pull the bell curve out at both ends – more biographies would earn 5 stars and more would receive fewer than 3 stars. And if I had calibrated my ratings system “perfectly” from the outset I expect the median rating would have been 3½ (rather than 3¾) stars.
(*) I am often asked whether I still think this was the best presidential biography I read and whether, if I read it again, it would still receive 5 stars. An excellent question…and I’m not entirely sure of the answer. But I’m reading Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” now and am reminded what I like so much about his approach and style.
Lessons Learned Along the Way:
They are too numerous to fully articulate in this post, but here are a few that come to mind:
(1) There are far more people attempting to read a biography of each president than you would imagine
(2) Reading and comparing a dozen biographies on a single president is much more difficult than I would have guessed
(3) Our nation / form of government is far more durable and resilient than most people appreciate
(4) Despite what is often reported, things have been this [good / bad / idyllic /
polarized / insane] before
(5) My vocabulary has improved. Enormously.
I’ve been engaged in this quest to uncover the best presidential biographies for nearly one-fourth of my adult life, so I’m going to shift gears slightly.
It’s no secret that I was unable to read every presidential biography I would have liked: some excellent biographies were published after I had already finished a particular president, and I simply overlooked or missed a few oldies-but-goodies. Thank you for pointing many of those out to me! My follow-up list of presidential biographies currently includes 105 books / volumes (these can be found embedded in my master list of presidential biographies.)
But I’ve also assembled a “Related Reading” list of about 240 biographies of compelling people I met on this journey (folks like Ben Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Sam Houston and Winston Churchill) who were instrumental in our nation’s history, but never served as president.
And there is no escaping that some of the greatest biographies ever written cover folks like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Mozart and King Henry VIII. I’ve spent a portion of the last three years assembling a master list of the best and most beloved biographies of all time – nearly 600 and counting – and it is impossible to resist the thought of tackling some of those.
→ I will now be allocating ~1/3 of my time to each of the following: follow-up presidential biographies, “Related Reading” biographies and “other” great biographies. My plan for the remainder of 2019 can be found here – it should be an exciting year!
I’ll be posting reviews of follow-up presidential biographies on this site – and updating my “best of” summary posts as appropriate. I will post “snippets” of Related Reading reviews on this site with full reviews available at http://www.thebestbiographies.com. And I will be posting reviews unrelated to the presidents only at http://www.thebestbiographies.com
I’m often asked whether I would consider addressing one or more topics in a particular format. These are almost always intriguing inquiries, but were simply impossible to undertake before I reached the end of this leg of the journey. Most common:
– Would you consider writing a post / article on the common characteristics or features of great presidents?
– Would you write a post / column / book ranking the presidents and supporting your assessments?
– Would you consider writing a biography of [_______]?
The answer(s): Maybe!
– Can I send you a (free) book we just published for you to review?
The answer: No, but thank you! I only read and review books I purchase. It’s less complicated that way 🙂
Thanks to the 5,000 or so of you who are following this site regularly and to the dozens of you who have kept up with this journey for so long and provided a steady stream of feedback: about biographies I’ve missed, your thoughts on a review just posted, alerting me to upcoming releases of significance, posting an answer to another reader’s query, etc.
You’ve all helped create a fascinating, unique and invaluable community.
The bad news: there are still lots of great books to be read…and never enough free time. The good news: there are still lots of great books to be read…
Happy Presidents Day!