Andrew Roberts, Christopher Leahy, David Reynolds, Fredrik Logevall, Jonathan Alter, Kai Bird, Peter Baker, presidential biographies, Robert Massie, Ron Chernow, T.J. Stiles, Walter Isaacson
Few of us will be disappointed to see 2020 fade into the rear-view mirror. But from a strictly presidential perspective it was a remarkably noteworthy year, featuring the third presidential impeachment (remember that?) and a historically unconventional presidential election (apparently still a work-in-process).
I’m curious to know how, with a healthy dose of political sobriety, history will judge the 45th presidency and the concomitant political scene. But despite a well-documented rush-to-publish (…and to judge) the dust is not likely to settle on this for a decade…or two.
Still, the past year was not all chaos and confusion.
– busiest year in this site’s history with almost 200,000 visitors
– nearly 600,000 pages viewed
– guests from 189 countries
– most popular page: The Best Presidential Bios (15% of all traffic)
– most popular president: Teddy Roosevelt (with Lincoln just behind)
– most popular new post: review of Tim McGrath’s new book on James Monroe
* several notable new presidential biographies were published including:
– James Monroe: A Life by Tim McGrath (May 5)
– President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler by Christopher Leahy (May 6)
– JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century by Fredrik Logevall (Sept 8)
– His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life by Jonathan Alter (Sept 29).
– Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David Reynolds (Sept 29)
* The best presidential bios I read this past year:
– Grant by Ron Chernow (absolutely wonderful, classic Chernow)
– His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life by Jonathan Alter (fabulous – a must read)
– President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler by Christopher Leahy (yes, really!)
* The best non-presidential bios I read this past year:
– Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow (simply superb!)
– Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (so good)
– Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (loved it)
– The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker
What Else Do I Read?
Much of my free time is devoted to reading and reviewing biographies, but I’m also a ravenous consumer of great blogs, history, news, and opinion sites.
Among my favorite consumables: The Bulwark (Jonathan Last‘s musings in particular), Real Clear Politics (a standard for more than 15 years), Jeremy Anderberg’s “What To Read Next” and, of course, history buff and news reporter Evan Axelbank’s podcasts.
As always, my next-twelve-month reading plan can be found here. I plan to read 28 biographies in 2021 including 9 presidential biographies and 19 “others”. Among the most anticipated:
The Outlier: The Life and Presidency of Jimmy Carter by Kai Bird (coming in May – the new definitive bio of Carter?)
The Age of Eisenhower by William Hitchcock (more about the “age” or “Ike”? We’ll see…)
Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert Massie (an oldie but goodie?)
Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts (a classic which I hope will live up to expectations)
As always, please let me know what you’re reading, what you really loved and what I’ve missed!
Steve H said:
These are outside the scope of the biographies you focus on, but I have thoroughly enjoyed in recent years reading Rick Atkinson’s trilogy on WWII in the ETO, as well as Ian Toll’s trilogy on WWII in the PTO. Both trilogies are excellent.
Also, I have avidly followed and read the (still a few volumes pending, I hope they complete the series during my lifetime) Oxford History of the United States.
I’m considering some “side” reading which might well start with Robert Massie’s “Dreadnought” but could go anywhere from there. I’ll have to check out the trilogies as a future possibility!
Russ Robinson said:
Happy New Year, Steve. Just finished Robert Caro’s Passage of Power and posted my thoughts on the LBJ site. Will soon start Dangerous Waters by Ron Powers.
Have I mentioned (a time or two thousand) that I can’t wait for the last volume in Caro’s LBJ series? I sincerely hope the pandemic-related travel challenges don’t slow him down (not to mention the virus itself)…
John Keyes said:
American/presidential history is my favorite subject, but Russian history is a close second. I’m excited to see that you’ll be reading about Nicholas II. I’ve been reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which has been fascinating, though I get a little frustrated with the author’s preoccupation with the salacious.
Anyway, I’m excited to read more of your reviews next year! Thanks for keeping this blog going!
I’m really looking forward to the Nicholas bio by Massie. It’s one that came highly recommended in one of Anderberg’s weekly posts and was mentioned again in his year-end wrap-up. Now, if only the post office would deliver it (4 weeks in transit and counting…!)
Earlier this year I was in the mood to read a book of adventure (I have Millard’s River of doubt still to read) but I chose Tim Jeals’s Bio of David Livingstone because it’s been collecting dust on my shelf for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed, I enjoyed it very much.
There’s one I’ve not heard of (neither the book *nor* it’s biographical subject). But now that I’ve perused the t.o.c. and some of the narrative, consider me tempted!
Noah S. said:
You inspire me and so many others to put a nose in a history book and learn something new every day – thank you for all that you do!
Thanks; I’m having a blast!
We will probably need to wait at least 20-25 years for an objective book on 45. Anything published in the near future will not be worth reading.
You may well be correct. I think there are some serious, thoughtful authors who will tackle this over the next several years, but I really can’t predict how long it will take for a thoughtful consensus to replace the polarized tribalism we see at the moment. Hopefully not 25 years, but…
It may actually take much longer than 25 years. The Civil War ended in 1865, but has the tribalism from it been replaced?
I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes convenient (or necessary) for one faction or another to forget / ignore prior allegiances, providing for the possibility of a fair-minded appraisal sooner than might otherwise be the case. Having said that, almost nothing would surprise me at this point. 🙂
J. Jensen said:
Even thoughtful authors can be overcome by personal bias in the writing of a biography about a recent and still living subject, such as Jean Edward Smith’s bio of George W. Bush. His Bush biography is in a different class than his biographies on Grant and FDR, which were masterful. Trump is such a polarizing figure, but our society has already been polarizing far before his rise to power and will continue to grow more polarized in the years to come. I’ve been a historian for over 20 years now, and in academia we generally say it takes about 20 years after a presidency to really begin to see an emerging consensus, but for Trump….let’s just say I’m not holding out much hope.
It’s not necessarily just a question of personal bias. Also access to data. Take Eisenhower as an example. The first treatments of his presidency saw him as an avuncular figure not really in command of his administration. Then, with his library built, scholars got access to the archives and the interpretation changed completely. It will be interesting to see whether the eventual Trump library allows for scholarly inquiry…..
Barbara Smiley said:
Happy New Year!
Happy 2021 to you as well!
2020 was very unconventional. Monroe and Tyler too.
2021 will start unconventional and – with some leadership – end with some sanity in sight.
Happy reading in 2021.
I try to be optimistic about each new year – particularly around things I can control. But this year there seems to genuinely be a great deal to be optimistic about. And even in the cloudiest of moments there are always great books. (But how many more bios could I have read these past months if I hadn’t binge-watched a few long-deferred tv series?!? Oh my…)
I started reading presidential whole-life biographies with McCullough’s Adams book. I’ve made it all the way through to Caro’s books and am now patiently waiting for the next installment. In the meantime, I’ll read Flexner’s Washington books. I have recently purchased Morison’s John Paul Jones, Anatoly Dobrynin’s memoirs, a Mao bio by a Russian, a Henry Clay bio, and Chernow’s Hamilton. But I can’t say for sure when I’ll read any of them – I don’t always get to things right away.
I’m randomly reading Russian leaders, but I don’t know how many I’ll do. Khruschev is next on that list, and I’m nearly done with the ones I’m interested in. I’m also randomly reading US Supreme Court justices; Abe Fortas is next there, with plenty more interesting candidates for continued study.
Robert’s Napoleon book is on my “want” list. So many Napoleon books to choose from!
I’d love to read about the Julio-Claudian (Roman) emperors. Also looking for good books about Alexander the Great and Charles de Gaulle. Suggestions welcome!
Sounds like you have the same issue I have – too much to read, not enough time. I’ve been looking into Charles de Gaulle bios given the recent publication of a couple. I’m leaning towards one by Julian Jackson, but still investigating…
Russ Robinson said:
I would highly recommend Flexner’s Washington series. I’ve read most the major bios on Washington [who is my favorite founder], Flexner’s is the best.
Ironically, Flexner’s series was where I started this entire journey.
Cat B said:
As always, I enjoy your year-end summaries. The stats are fascinating. Glad to see your blog has remained popular! Cheers to 2021!
Last year I wanted to read up on Mao and Stalin. For Mao I read Chang and Halliday’s Mao, the Unknown Story. I found it to be readable and eye opening.
For Stalin I read Kotkin’s vol 1 book and It was a torturous slog to get thru. A 1 star reviewer thought the same and recommended Robert Services’s 2004 book so I’ll give that a try sometime.
J. Jensen said:
Mao: The Unknown Story is definitely a very readable biography. I minored in Modern Chinese History in my undergrad history studies and found that one of the more enjoyable books we studied. I lived in Asia for a couple years as well, which is where my interest in their history came from. I’ve actually become more of a specialist now in Cold War history, but actually have only read a single bio on Stalin. It wasn’t particularly engaging, and I can’t even recall what one it was now. My focus is on the latter half of the Cold War, so haven’t focused a lot on Stalin. As a result, he’s definitely one I’d love to find a good single volume bio on to check out.
After a little research, Montefiore’s book on Stalin – Court of the Red Tsar sounds good. That was followed by his Young Stalin. But like everybody else I have the problem of too many books needing to be read.
Craig Phillips said:
Hi Steve … thank you so much for your amazing site. I am seriously addicted to it, way down in Adelaide, Australia. I am also a finance professional and while a keen reader previously, COVID has ramped up my output!
I am now 18 biographies in covering 16 presidents in (since Jul-20) plus Chernow’s Hamilton and have pretty much all of 2021 sorted too. Like many here, I am planning on reading at least one on every president.
Your site is the first place I go to for the recommendation and then occasionally, I seek out a more recent offering from other recommendations, or a single biography rather than a series.
Being the banker, I have it all on an Excel spreadsheet, much to the amusement of my kids. Be happy to share what I have read and the ratings I have given them.
Anyway … thank you again. Not sure I would made any progress on this “Noble Quest” (as my daughter calls it) without your fantastic resource. 🙂
A very timely quote of the week:
“Fitzgerald’s generation also believed in heroes. An era that requires heroes will create them.”