American history, Andrew Roberts, biographies, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Debby Applegate, Maynard Solomon, presidential biographies, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow
About 7 years ago I embarked on a great adventure: to read the best biographies of every U.S. president and record my impressions along the way.A year ago I completed that journey having read 240 biographies of the former presidents and uncovered some great biographies – and some unexpectedly fascinating presidents!
In the months since then I’ve been asked to consider writing essays, articles and posts on topics such as:
– “Who was your favorite president and why?”
– “What are the essential characteristics of a great presidential biography?”
– “What are the factors critical to a successful presidency?”
But the question I’m asked most often: “How would you rank the presidents from best to worst?”
These are all interesting questions. And I do have an opinion on them (with varying degrees of precision and intensity). But I haven’t found the time to proffer appropriately thoughtful, cogent responses to them. Well…not yet 🙂
– – – –
So, how did I spend my first “free” year? Reading more biographies, of course!Follow-up bios of five presidents along with biographies of the fascinating people I encountered the past few years including Joseph P. Kennedy, Ben Franklin and Henry Clay. Finally, for good measure I tossed in some of the best biographies I could find of larger-than-life icons like Mozart, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.
I also took a four-month break to read some long-neglected fiction, oversee the rehabilitation of an FDR-vintage house…and to re-seed my front yard.
How did I like the 17 biographies I read?
Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” was incredible – as good as anything I’ve ever read (review here) – and Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, while aggressive in length, was marvelous (review). I was a bit disappointed by Debby Applegate’s Pulitzer-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher (review) but I really disliked Maynard Solomon’s “Mozart: A Life.” C’est la vie.
– – – –
What’s coming in 2020? As always my road map for the next year is available here and I’m planning to read at least 32 biographies this year:
– 11 follow-up presidential bios including Chernow’s “Grant,” the 1968 abridgment of Douglas Southall Freeman’s series on Washington, a highly-anticipated & soon-to-be-published biography of James Monroe and Jonathan Alter’s long-awaited biography of Jimmy Carter.
– 11 biographies of irresistible personalities I met during my journey through the presidents including biographies of J.P. Morgan and John Rockefeller, a widely-praised biography of Winston Churchill by Andrew Roberts and Blanche Wiesen Cook’s three-volume series on the inimitable Eleanor Roosevelt.
– 10 biographies of “other people” including Queen Victoria, Leonardo da Vinci, John Wayne and Sir Walter Raleigh. You know, just because…
⇒⇒⇒ If you have time, check out this slightly irreverent (cheeky?) but incredibly entertaining and informative podcast series on the presidents which recently debuted on a website I’ve been following for years. I’ve only listened to Episode 1 but it helped me survive a wretched morning commute on I-95 so I can’t wait to check out Episode 2!
Ted Dees said:
And happy Presidents’ Day to you! Perhaps you could collaborate with Robert W. Merry on a revised edition of “Where They Stand,” still my go-to book for micro-refreshers on the presidents.
Thanks! Coincidentally I purchased that book early in my journey and enjoyed referring to it when moving from one president to the next so I’d have a sense of what to expect (at least up through Clinton if I remember correctly).
Reading your well-constructed and intelligent reviews is always a treat!
Barbara Smiley said:
Happy Presidents Day to you. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching your journey and you’ve given me really good hints on choosing my own Presidential biographies. Looking forward to the next year. Thanks for sharing.
I’m still enjoying your reviews. I am up to Nixon on my Presidential journey. I have also read several of the biographies you read outside of the Presidents. It is good to mix it up for a change of pace.
As fascinating as the presidents are, it does seem refreshing to mix in a few other names. And by all means do let me know what you’re reading that I need to add to my list and/or what you’ve read that you really loved (whether about the presidents or someone else!)
Gary Huizilopoxtli said:
Currently reading a new massive, detailed biography of Metternich by Wolfram Siemann. It’s good, especially if you like 19th century European history.
Gary Huizilopoxtli said:
Hopefully the new James Monroe biography will be better than the old one by Ammon.
I have read up to Theodore Roosevelt and am now reading Theodore Roosevelt’s letters to his children by Joan Paterson Kerr. The book is titled A Bully Father. Thanks for all your help on my journey.
Happy Presidents Day. Did you see Fredrik Logevall’s JFK Volume 1, coming in at over 900(!) pages covering until 1956 drops in September
Congratulations on 7 years! I’ve been following along for most of that time and have chosen several biographies based on your recommendations.
If you are going to read about Churchill, I highly recommend “Hero of the Empire” by Candace Millard. Not a standard biography, but a great story about Churchill as a young man during the Boer War.
Thanks, and thanks for the suggestion. I’ve read two of Millard’s books and thought they were fantastic so I expect that her Churchill book is probably great as well. I’ll definitely have to find time to read it sooner rather than later-
Alan Nathan said:
Hello Steve. I really enjoy reading your reviews. If I am reading correctly, your only two 5-star reviews are from Ron Chernow (Hamilton and Washington). Am I correct? When you get around to reading his Grant, I am confident you will also give that 5 stars.
Thanks for keeping your followers informed.
Best …. Alan Nathan
Yes, you are correct. About a year into the presidential journey I realized I had established (or, more to the point, Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” had established) too high a bar for a 5-star review. But once I got 40 or 50 books in, it was impractical to go back and re-calibrate my curve, and I’ve only read two books that I thought gave me the nearly perfect literary and intellectual experience and they both happened to be Chernow-authored biographies. I’m excited to see how I feel about “Grant” and it’s just three or four books away at this point-
James Salerno said:
Your blog has been a tremendous resource in helping me map out my own journey for presidential biographies. I gave myself a two-year deadline (July 4th 2018-2020) to read one on each, not in order. Working on Truman now and still have both Harrisons, Ford and Clinton to go. I’m saving the best, Chernow’s Washington, for last. I’ve also accumulated quite a follow-up reading list!
Hi Steve – I would absolutely love to hear your rankings of the presidents! Tricky, I appreciate, what do you base it on? E.g. by today’s standards, Washington’s thoughts on slavery wouldn’t allow him to score highly, but can’t argue with his achievements (I’m about halfway through Chernow’s biography now). There are a lot of rankings out there, but I think given your readings you would be uniquely placed to offer a genuinely assessment.
I commented previously about coming from the UK, can I recommend for your list something around Gladstone? Fascinating character, and well ahead of his time from a UK perspective.