About

I’m an investment banker, private pilot and avid fan of American history. I also enjoy Thai food, camping, Robert Ludlum novels and anything containing chocolate. And somehow I’ve ended up with a flower farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains…

Three decades ago I left Texas to attend Brown University and experience all four seasons. A few years later I left Rhode Island with a Chemical Engineering degree and the understanding that snow is seriously overrated.

Given my fascination with the presidency and love of great writing, in 2010 I began collecting the best biographies of each of the presidents. In late 2012 I embarked on a quest to read them all – beginning with George Washington.

This site was initially created to log my journey and organize my thoughts. But 260 presidential biographies later it has evolved into something a bit larger…

I finished my first pass through the presidents on Presidents’ Day 2019 – after six fascinating years. Now I’m reading presidential biographies from my follow-up list as well as great biographies of non-presidents.

That journey is being documented at http://www.thebestbiographies.com.

Stephen Floyd
January 2022P1020865

404 thoughts on “About”

  1. Hi Steve,

    I’m curious, have you ever thought about doing a companion series going through the First Ladies? That might be interesting to read about the women who helped shape each president.

    • I have thought of doing that as a corollary to the presidents but just haven’t “gone deep” trying to find great biographies of each of the First Ladies. I am, however, planning to read a 3-volume series on Eleanor Roosevelt toward the end of the year and will be reading Jon Meacham’s forthcoming bio of Dolley and James Madison as soon as it is published.

      For what it’s worth, the other similar question I’m often asked is whether I would consider doing the same thing for UK Prime Ministers. I think that, too, would be fascinating but haven’t done the work to ferret out great bios of the non-Churchill PMs.

      • Your path on Reading the Best Biographies of All Time is excellent. Instead of only focusing on political leaders, you are broadening your scope. We all focus on the political leaders (I am exhibit A), but finance, industry, et al. have a profound impact on society. William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, et al. led movements which contributed to radical changes.

      • Yes the 3 volume series on Eleanor Roosevelt I’ve heard is great. Jon Meacham, Dolly and James Madison? I’m in. I bet it will be a great book. On the subject of Churchill, I believe I saw Martin Gilbert’s 8 book series on your list? Look forward to your review on that, whenever that might be.

    • Fabulous. Thanks so much.

      We live in Bangkok. If you ever head this way would be happy to feed you some (hopefully) good Thai food in thanks for these wonderful resources you have created.

      Be well

      Art

  2. Gary Allison said:

    Hi Steve

    I’m in the beginning stages of research for a 4 vol. series entitled Presidential Outliers. I would like to send you an outline in order to get your impression of whether this series would be of interest to Presidential history junkies like you and me. I don’t see that there is away to attach anything to this message, so if you are interested please email so I can reply with the outline attached.

    Thanks

    Gary Allison
    Professor Emeritus
    The University of Tulsa College of Law

  3. Hi Steve –

    I thought I would drop you a note to thank you for your site. I am finishing up Harding and now on to Coolidge. I started my journey around 2010 with a beach read of John Adams. Next up for me was Truman since at the time I was fond of David McCullough as an author. I enjoyed both Adams and Truman biographies so much that I decided to try Chernow’s Washington and the rest is history as they say.

    Tod

  4. Sarah Jones said:

    Hi Steve,
    I just found your site. I’m reading biographies in chronological order – a single biography for each. I’ve learned a lot! I just finished Millard Fillmore so have a ways to go.
    Your site is extremely valuable in helping me find the best resources.
    Thank you!
    Sally

  5. Catherine Hendrickson said:

    Hi Steve, thank you for your site. I would appreciate your guidance and that of your web audience on excellent, shorter, objective/balanced biographies that our grandson (age 12 but reads at 12th grade level) would enjoy. Thank you, Catherine

    • Catherine, I’m sure someone else will chime in with one or more excellent suggestions. But in the meantime…let me offer up that my youngest son – who is NOT inclined to read anything longer than about three paragraphs – read Candice Milllard’s “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” for a school assignment two years ago at my request and LOVED it. It is 350 pages or so but is an engrossing and nearly effortless read. In fact, he liked that book so much that the next year he read her book on James Garfield “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” (300 pages?) and enjoyed it as well…even though he had never even heard of Garfield and had no particular desire to figure out who he was 🙂

      Neither are traditional cradle-to-grave biographies but instead focus on particular elements of each of those presidents’ lives – an adventure-filled post-presidential journey through the Brazilian rain forest in TR’s case and the assassination attempt and last weeks of life dealing with incompetent medical care in the case of Garfield. Although these books don’t attempt to cover all aspects of TR’s & Garfield’s lives with equal emphasis, the reader does learn enough about them to provide appropriate context and appreciation.

    • I have learned that “objective “ is in the eyes of the beholder…

      As for shorter one volumes biographies, the American President series are all approximately 150 pages long. Far from the most in depth but mostly ok for a general overview.

      • Although the books in that series are shorter, I personally would not recommend them for your grandson. I think he would find many of them kinda boring and dry. It’s longer, but I bet he would find Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic more interesting. It’s about the seemingly obscure James Garfield – – and the guy who killed him.

      • All of the Candace Millard books are excellent!

      • Jeffrey Nydick said:

        His Excellency: George Washington, by Joseph Ellis; Thomas Jefferson
        by R. B. Bernstein and though not a presidential bio, Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morris. Not easy reads for a 12 year old, but all I believe fit your description.

    • It has been 8 years since I’ve dealt with a 12-year old, but the American Presidents series may bore him. (Although my kids were fascinated by the numbers on the spines – occasionally asking why some numbers were skipped.) They have the advantage of being concise and available, but not much else. Some are better than others obviously. I would generally steer clear of any of the adult biographies as well. Although he is reading at a high school senior level, the topics can get tricky without background – this applies to adults as well.  Do you live near a large- or medium-sized library district? They probably have a reference librarian who can recommend a series or sequence of books. Finding good stuff on Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, TR, and FDR may be easy. It will be more difficult with the lesser known presidents. Good luck searching and hope he enjoys. 

       

  6. Russ Robinson said:

    I’ve read a few of the American Presidents series and I would think they would be a good primer for most 12 year olds. But if he is already really interested in history, as others say,it may not be much of a challenge. Let me recommend some of the bios of Richard Brookhiser. He’s done short, but decent bios on Washington, the Adams, Madison, and Lincoln.

  7. Have discovered your amazing site, and appreciate all the effort that has gone into it! My “quest” for several years has been to obtain at least 1 book on each president, and I’m about halfway to my goal. In order for a book to count (and be included on my “presidential” bookshelf at home), it doesn’t necessarily need to be a straight biography or autobiography.
    I have several very interesting finds, including a book of editorial cartoons about Hoover and a book on Jefferson titled “Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks: Poems of Nation, Family and Romantic Love Collected by America’s Third President” (which I’ve not yet opened up).
    Again, thanks for this fantastic site, and I look forward to exploring it further.

  8. Mr. Herrett said:

    Hello, I greatly appreciate your website as I’ve decided to go through the presidential biographies as well. For my first pass through I’m trying to focus on single volumes with the best balance between information and readability, I’ve come to Jefferson and can’t seem to find your review on “architect of American liberty” by Boles. If you have a moment to point me in the direction of your review or briefly tell me if you skipped it, your help would be very valuable. Thank you.

  9. Hi Stephen,
    As the internet is wont to do (fortunately) I navi-stumble-gated onto your site today. It is exactly what I have been looking for. Being a history buff, presidential histories interest me greatly. It’s common to hear folks saying, “Yeah, how did we get here?”
    Well if a person is willing to invest some time and enjoyable effort it’s not that difficult.

    A simple presidential action or gesture can set the course of history and answer that question above. e.g. An unanswered or ignored letter containing an overture for peace from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman requesting U.S. assistance to form a peace treaty with France to end the French occupation. He complimented American ideals and begged for help. Whether peace would have actually resulted we’ll never know but whatever ultimately transpired could not have been any worse than where we find ourselves now. Imagine the possibilities. No Viet Nam war?

    Based on your timelines for getting through all that reading I am convinced you operate within the confines of a 72 hour day and at least a 10 day week!!!!!!

    Your site is like finding buried treasure. You’ve already done all the heavy lifting!!!!!

    Thanks

    • Ah what a thought – if I really could enjoy 72-hour days I might find myself actually getting 8 hours of sleep a night 🙂

      Welcome to the site…and enjoy! One of the things I find myself considering *often* is how things could have turned out VERY differently if slightly different decisions had been made (or luck unfolded differently) at various points in the past: What if Andrew Jackson had been chosen by the House over JQA in 1824? What if Lincoln had lived to be a Reconstruction president? What if FDR had died prior to D-Day? What if Nixon refused to participate in the Watergate conspiracy? The possibilities are endless…and endlessly fascinating…

  10. I’m so glad I found your site! I am following your recommendations and working my way through the presidents. Question: do you have a spreadsheet available of your “best” list? I’d love to have a list when I’m in a used book store for reference on which books I want to buy.

    • My master list used to be in a spreadsheet but is now simply my “Best Presidential Bios” page…supplemented by post-it notes and other scraps of paper taped to the side of my desk which haven’t made it onto a sticky note yet 🙂 But I just tried copying and pasting the Best Bios list into an Excel sheet and with a modest amount of re-formatting it does the trick.

  11. Wally Marcus said:

    Don’t see
    Fredrik Logevall
    JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956

    Do see volume 3

  12. I just wanted to send a quick thank you for your time and effort on this site. I’m working through presidential and first Lady biographies and your site has been integral in my decision process for the presidents.

    • I appreciate your note, and as you work through the First ladies, *please* let me know when you come across a biography you really love! I just read one on Eleanor Roosevelt which I enjoyed and am looking forward to Dolley Madison, among others. And when it comes to advice on which First Lady bios to read, I’m definitely open to suggestions from anyone who has traveled down that path!

  13. This has been a wonderful reference for me during my own journey through the presidents. I truly appreciate the work you have done to compile this list and series of reviews. While I may not complete every book listed, you have helped me narrow down the ones I should definitely tackle when I have the time! You da best!

  14. That’s wonderful! What I have found so far is that it can be very difficult to find bios for some of them. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe has a small booklet available at the Monroe Museum online store. And the History Channel website has a list of women who acted as first Lady to an unmarried/widowed president: “Not Every First Lady Has Been Married to the President” It took a while to find an affordable used copy of Andrew Jackson’s niece, Emily Donelson of Tennessee.

  15. Thank you for what you’ve done here. Your site has been invaluable in my own journey through presidential biographies. Your work has saved me time and made the trip more enjoyable than it would have been without your guidance.

    • Thanks and good luck! One thing I’ve learned: you will never run out of things to read…just time! So you might as well optimize what you choose to spend your free time reading-

  16. Thank you for taking the time to capture and synthesize all your presidential reading, Steve. I found it wonderfully helpful in deciding where to go next (I’m finishing up Chernow’s book on Washington – loving it) and may read the Dallek book on JFK. That said, I’m looking for the best one volume book on Churchill. Did you tangle with the Big Man any?

    Sincerely,
    Carter

    • Carter, I read Andrew Roberts’s recently published single vol bio (which, by the way, received solid reviews across the board). I found it good, scholarly and meticulous in most ways but for me it lacked some of the “spark” I expected. Since its subject was Churchill, I thought the biography would consistently be as entertaining as Churchill proved in the FDR bios I read for instance. And it just wasn’t that engrossing. Next year I plan to read the 3-volume Manchester series, but there are also other single-volume Churchill bios that I might try as well.

  17. Being British, this truly is an outstanding site full of a gold mine of information and resources!

    I am doing a really deep dive into the Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover and that whole era in US History.

    I have just started “The Rise of Warren Gamaliel Harding 1865-1920” and have Murray’s book lined up on The Harding Era. I am tempted to further purchase the Shadow of Blooming Grove too! eBay is a great marketplace – UK bookshops have little room for these Presidents or they haven’t been printed in 50 years!

    • If you are an American doing a deep dive of the Hardin, Coolidge and Hoover administrations you are in rare company.

      If you are *British* and doing the same, you are truly one-of-a-kind!

      • I guess my aim is to explore the Republican Party and USA in the Prohibition era/Jazz Age up until the Great Depression and the inauguration of FDR. I want books and resources that cover:

        1) Prohibition
        2) The dying days of the Wilson administration
        3) The 1920 US election
        4) The Harding Presidency
        5) Harding the man
        6) Harding’s scandals (Teapot Dome and Harding’s personal life)
        7) Harding’s America (culturally and socially including the Rise of Hollywood)
        8) US Foreign Policy between 1918 – 1933
        9) US Domestic Issues generally (1918 – 1933)
        10) Coolidge the man
        11) The Coolidge Presidency
        12) Coolidge’s America (socially and culturally)
        13) The 1924 US Presidential election
        14) J Edgar Hoover and the FBI
        15) Herbert Hoover the man
        16) The Hoover Presidency
        17) The 1928 US Presidential Election
        18) The Wall Street Crash
        19) The Great Depression
        20) Hoover’s America (culturally and socially)

        There will be a ton to read there. I wang to explore every possible avenue of America and GOP between 1918 – 1933. But I love the way you have set out your website and it has inspired me to try and do my own devoted to this era.

        I have attempted something like this similarly for “The Land of Lost Content”, which detailed the period in British history from 1951-1964 when the Conservatives under Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home were in charge, bookends by the radical Labour governments of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. It was fascinating – Macmillan is an extremely curious individual. Very enjoyable.

      • Arthur Winter said:

        HiYou familiar with the Frederick Lewis Allen books? Be wellArt Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone. From: My Journey Through the Best Presidential BiographiesSent: Friday, March 19, 2021 8:03 AMTo: artwinter20@gmail.comReply To: My Journey Through the Best Presidential BiographiesSubject: [New comment] About

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        /* @media only screen and (max-device-width: 480px) { .post { min-width: 700px !important; } } */ WordPress.com Scott commented: ‘I guess my aim is to explore the Republican Party and USA in the Prohibition era/Jazz Age up until the Great Depression and the inauguration of FDR. I want books and resources that cover:

        1) Prohibition 2) The dying days of the Wilson administration ‘

  18. Katy Williams said:

    Steve: Thank you sooooo much for all your dedication, detail, links and updated information. My friend and I have been using your site for years now as we navigate our way through the president biographies. I am currently reading “Bully Pulpit” but just ordered my next 5 biographies and the new one released on Eleanor Roosevelt. My students and I have great conversations about all the connections between presidents, current events and science. My brother-in-law and I have hour long conversations about each book I read. My in-laws give me book gift cards now to support this quest. Finally my book shelves are getting more and more full and all the books I have bough are second-hand, recycled books! Please continue with your quest and I look forward to checking out your other biography blog. Lastly….reading all these books over the years truly helped me weather this past fall election season, understand the Capitol riots a bit more and to treasure that we have finally elected a female VP of color!!!!!

    • Thanks so much for the feedback! You’ll notice I liked the recently-released bio of Eleanor Roosevelt, but what it really did was convince me I need to read Blanche Wiesen Cook’s trilogy. But if reading so many books about the presidents has done one thing for me, it’s to provide interesting perspective on the various events which have tried to tear the country apart…and how resilient the nation has proved to be in the end. Good luck on your reading adventures and keep me up to date what you’re reading and what you’ve really enjoyed-

  19. Jason Madwell said:

    I just found this site. From just a cursory view, it looks amazing and it is something I always wished I could find.

    I have always loved reading Presidential history. As I was a history major (a couple decades ago), I am familiar with the big name authors/historians of the last several decades.
    I still have always been a little hesistant when buying a new book because I do not want to waste time or money with a substandard biography. I think your reviews will help me greatly.

    Thanks for putting in the work with this.

    • This site has been incredibly rewarding for me since it has inadvertently created a community for people who enjoy presidential biographies. As a result, I’ve gotten great feedback from folks who have read books I haven’t gotten to, I’ve received tips on biographies I really need to add to my list and I’ve enjoyed reading various people’s thoughts on books I’ve read (which in some cases goes against my own view of that particular book).

  20. Hi there!

    What a tremendous journey you’re on! I’m from India and I was looking for the best Lincoln biography and came upon your site. I’m also a history and biography fan, may be a fraction of what you are. This is a great resource you have created. Thanks a lot.

    May I take the liberty to recommend you a book: Lincoln’s Mentors: The Education of a Leader by Michael J. Gerhardt (2021)

    Cheers
    Milan

    • Thanks for your feedback, and especially for the recommendation! I recall this coming out recently and when I looked over the table of contents I was intrigued by the book’s mission & structure. At some point I’ll undoubtedly have to read this.

  21. Scott A. Mugno said:

    Hello Steve. A quick note to say I just discovered your best presidential bio page. I feel like a small boy on Christmas morning again. What an enjoyable discovery. Thank you for doing this. I have done my best, time permitting, to find, read and collect presidential autobiographies and then biographies. Clearly I have only scratched the surface. I look forward to catching up on your page and moving forward to your best biographies pages. Hope this finds you and yours safe, healthy and well. Scott A. Mugno

    • Scott, thanks and welcome! I, too, feel like I’ve only scratched the surface when I look at the long list of presidential biographies yet to be read (many of them classics, some of them comparatively fresh) and the fact I haven’t even begun to tackle autobiographies & memoirs. Enjoy the adventure and let me know what grabs your attention along the way.

  22. Briana Feinberg said:

    Hi,
    My son and I came across your list on a search for best presidential biographies for young readers. He is 9 and, like you, loves history. He would like to read one really good biography of each president. Though he’s 9, he reads at a middle/high school level. Unfortunately, it seems like there are not a lot of adult presidential biographies adapted for readers this age, and the ones aimed at children are too simple for him. He’s started off with the young readers adaptation of John Meacham’s Jefferson: The Art of Power. I wondered if you have any suggestions for additional adaptations, or any of the adult biographies that might be more accessible to him. Thanks for this list!

    • Unfortunately I don’t have any specific knowledge of adaptations for precocious kids. All I can say is that for a 9th grade project my youngest son (and reluctant reader) read Candice Millard’s “River of Doubt” and came to love Teddy Roosevelt (and good writing) so the next year he tackled her book “Destiny of the Republic” about James Garfield – and loved it as well.

  23. Briana Feinberg said:

    I also want to recommend The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, if you haven’t already read it.

    • Russ Robinson said:

      I’ve read Gordon-Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello. Great book, certainly recommend it to anyone who interested in studying slavery in the US or Thomas Jefferson.

  24. Hi, I am a 15 year old living in Colorado. Ever since I was little I have been fascinated by learning about the people who have shaped our nation. Recently I started reading a biography on every president, I am currently on Grant. I would just like to thank you for having this website, there are so many important lessons we can learn from these presidents not only about politics but how we should live our lives. There is no way I would have been able to find an in-depth book on Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore had it not been for you. It is my wish that people follow your lead and begin to show curiosity in America’s deep history. One quick question; how much do you believe political experience impacts a presidency? I’ve noticed through my reading that some of the less impactful presidents (John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, etc.) had some of the most experience prior to becoming president. However, some of the most impactful presidents (Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, etc.) had very little political experience prior to their presidencies.

    • Jake, as you might imagine I’m a huge fan of the journey you have embarked on! And I’m impressed you’ve made it to Grant…which means you survived at least one tough stretch 🙂 As an aside, I’m curious which biography of Lincoln you read (and which of Grant you’re currently reading).

      Your question is difficult to answer since it really depends on the particular president and the historical context. When I first read your question I immediately thought of Lyndon Johnson – whose long political career gave him a keen sense of what it would take to get landmark legislation passed. But as you noted there has arguably not been a more experienced politician/diplomat than JQA, and it didn’t exactly lead to a blisteringly successful presidency.

      Ultimately, I think a president’s success or failure can be attributed to personality (leadership ability / charisma, character and ability to empathize), political acumen/instincts (whether or not accompanied by political experience) and the person’s ability to react to unexpected shocks/events (such as 9/11, a severe economic shock…or even South Carolina seceding). And I don’t think we can ever underestimate the value of good luck/fortunate timing(!)

      • Thanks so much for responding and answering my question! Surprisingly it was hard for me to find a biography on Lincoln which I had not previously read. Team of Rivals, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, and The Fiery Trial were all books I had previously read. So I ended up reading a book I found on my grandpa’s bookshelf called Lincoln: Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan. It was an interesting read because it dove deep into Lincoln’s sense of curiosity. But it definitely does not compare to Team of Rivals. Currently I am reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant which has been with out a doubt been one of my favorite biographies I’ve read through this journey. I particularly enjoy the biographies that deeply explore the presidents personality (as Chernow always does). You didn’t include it on your list of Grant but I was curious if you have read his memoir on the civil war? It seems to be referenced constantly throughout Chernow’s book and I might give that a read soon.

      • Two of my Lincoln favorites were those written by Goodwin and Donald. Although I’ve read about a dozen biographies of him, I have not read Kaplan’s. And of the eight Grant bios I’ve read, Chernow’s is at the top!

        I haven’t read Grant’s memoirs (or anyone else’s for that matter) but definitely plan to.

      • Have you ever considered writing your own book? The people who write history also create history. I’m considering writing my own book about lessons we can learn from each of the presidents after I finish the journey of reading a biography on each of them. Have you considered doing anything similar?

      • I’ve thought about it, but I’m not certain I’d be able to live up to the standards I’ve set for the biographies I read 🙂

        Actually, I’m always searching for topics – or specific presidents – where I think I have an angle. But writing a great book would also takes a good deal of time and passion and while I sometimes have one of those, I don’t often have both simultaneously…with time often being in shorter supply.

  25. Ray Schwartz said:

    Steve,
    Just a note of thanks for the great website you have created and maintained. I’ve enjoyed reading biographies of presidents and previously read them in random order… Lincoln, Truman, Adams.
    But since finding your website I am now going in order and find your input must reading for choosing the book for my next president. Just finished Remini’s one-volume abridgment on Andrew Jackson. Found the similarities to current times fascinating.
    Onward to MVB. Again, many thanks for your good work.

    • Many thanks for your note, and I have also observed some fascinating similarities between the political cultures in our times and certain periods in the past (including Washington’s last term – and the Jacksonian era). Enjoy MVB – one of my favorite under-the-radar presidents!

  26. Steve,

    About four years ago, I decided that I didn’t know enough about the people who help the Presidency. I resolved to read a biography of every President. I started looking for resources to guide me, and I have found your page invaluable. I just started Jimmy Carter, and I plan to finish up with Obama in February, even if I have to come back to the more recent Presidents at a future date. Thank you for your valuable insight and reviews. They certainly have saved me a lot of time, and undoubtedly from some poor biographies.

    All the best,
    Kevin

    • Kevin, a huge congratulations on an enormous achievement! Lots of people start that adventure but a substantial percentage are distracted, side-tracked or lose interest (there are a couple of spots where enthusiasm begins to wane) before getting to the end.

      I – and probably lots of other folks – would love to know what the highlights of your journey have been…surprisingly great books, presidents you found more interesting than you suspected, authors you fell in love with, whatever. In any event, congrats again and best of luck on your next great adventure-

  27. I am curious why you did not include Ted Widmer’s book on Martin Van Buren. I am enjoying it very much. I appreciate your reviews and recommendations. I am reading one on each president.

    • No reason in particular, but I only sporadically read the quite-concise biographies which are part of The American Presidents series. And this one, in particular, seemed not well-received (though I don’t remember whether that was part of my rationale at the time – it was 9 years ago when I was first going through Van Buren!)

  28. Kevin Sanderson said:

    Hi Steve.

    Well, I did it. I finished Barack Obama: The Story, and that concludes, for the time being, my project of reading a biography of every President. 45 books in 4 years and one month. I have to admit that I got bogged down during Rutherford B. Hayes, and questioned if I wanted to continue. But, I powered through.

    Here are some comments:

    Most Pleasant Surprise: Polk, The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. I am a goal oriented person, so reading about Polk saying he is going to get in, accomplish four objectives, and get out, really spoke to me.

    Biggest Drag: Van Buren: Martin van Buren and the American Political System. As a Midwesterner, it was A LOT about internal New York politics in Albany.

    Biggest Mistake: Shortchanging LBJ and reading an abridged Lyndon Johnson: Portrait of a President. Not wanting to read all three volumes, but really enjoying the author from his JFK book, I got barely skin deep on someone who is quite a character.

    My Opinion Changed On: Chester Arthur. Thrust into a tough spot with little to no experience, I think he did well to overcome his shady past in New York politics, and his efforts to modernize the Navy were rewarded in the Spanish American War.

    Biggest Oops: I didn’t realize Wallner’s biography of Franklin Pierce was a two volume set. Volume 1 ended with him on his way to Washington, shortly after the accidental death of his son. It was a cliffhanger as I had to wait some time trying to source Volume II.

    Biggest Oops II: I ordered Peskin’s book on Garfield, used. Amazon sent me a book about Garfield, the cat. I ended up getting Candice Millard’s book, which while not a traditional biography, was phenomenal.

    Biggest Disappointment: John Tyler. Gary May did a fine job in the American Presidents series, but this was a man who was President of the US, and in the Congress of the Confederate States, and it seems to not have gotten its proper attention.

    Favorites: Burlingame’s Lincoln: A Life. I know, not very insightful, but it is incredible stuff. Jean Edward Smith’s FDR, McCullough’s Adams and Truman. White’s American Ulysses.

    I went ahead and read Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, mainly because David Maraniss is one of my favorite writers. But I look forward to circling back in 10 years or so and getting into the 21st century Presidents.

    As for now, I am going to go for some long-neglected fiction!

    • What a fabulous post…and congratulations! And just in time for Presidents Day, no less…

      Initial thoughts on your observations (going in reverse order b/c, well, it’s early where I am:

      1. I appreciate the aching hole that leaving fiction behind for some time can leave. I’m 9+ years into a life w/o fiction. Fortunately, some folks have clearly led lives that, when properly captured by a skilled biographer, seems a lot like fiction(!)

      2. If I ask myself which of the 260-ish presidential bios made the most impact on me without being uniquely memorable, Burlingame’s biography would be up there. I wasn’t dazzled by it like I was DKW’s “Team of Rivals” and it wasn’t colorful like so many others. But…wow. It’s one I will re-read someday for sure.

      3. You received a book about Garfield the cat, I accidentally ordered a book about how to build your own log cabin made of Lincoln log toys. Long story…

      4. Re: LBJ – you can redeem yourself! Set aside a month and power through the Caro series. I would love to see what you think. I suspect you’ll be amazed by his perceptive eye, but also his stamina since it all gets typed out on a manual typewriter. And you’ll wonder why his editor couldn’t whittle it all down by [1/3]

      5. Chester Arthur: one of my favorite quotes (and I don’t remember where it came from) was that the untimely death of Garfield led to the unfortunate presidency of Chester Arthur, about whom the best that can be said is that he was far more honest than expected. I liked him even a bit more than that, however.

      6. MVB: if I had one wish from a genie in a bottle (presidency-related, that is) I would ask for access to a magic cache of primary source material on Van Buren and his world. Then I would spend the rest of my life convincing Chernow or McCullough to write a biography about the Little Magician that would knock your socks off.

      7. Polk: Hard to believe there are still people who, if asked about James Polk, would have absolutely no idea who or what you were talking about 🙂

      8. And last but not least, your comment about Hayes reminds me that during my own first trip through the presidents, I came to the conclusion there weren’t really any boring presidents…just boring biographies. And I encountered my fair share of them(!)

      Thanks again for a thought-provoking note and let us know when your literary travels bring you back to the presidents!

  29. George Mason said:

    I just discovered your site (after Googling “best biography of Woodrow Wilson”), and I admire the scope and quality of what I’ve seen so far. Looking forward to reading much more as time permits.

  30. Nicholas Gernt said:

    Hey Steve,

    I appreciate all of this work you have put into your site. This is a wealth of knowledge that is now pinned to my task bar.

    I’m a relatively younger guy, 26, and I am looking to read all a biography on all of the presidents as well. I’m curious on your process when starting out? Did you read only one biography at a time? Also, how did you manage to stay on schedule? How many hours did you read a day?

    Any info would be appreciated. So far, I’ve read a comprehensive biography on Washington, Adams, and Grant. I’m almost finished with Quincy Adams right now.

    Best,
    Nick

    • Nick, from the very beginning I’ve only been reading one biography at a time. This is primarily due to the fact that when I’m writing a review I can’t afford to have two different sets of thoughts and perspectives become inadvertently entertwined and I’m afraid my brain might not be nimble enough to avoid that, so…

      One biography at a time. I’ve averaged about 50 pages per day (but this tends to come in 100-150 page bursts, with a day or two of no reading). I don’t do well reading, say, 20 or 30 or 40 pages a day over the long term…I really need to read in larger batches even if there’s some time between those bursts. And I take lots of notes – quotes I love or find interesting, and my thoughts on the book’s organization, the author’s style, things I particularly like or don’t like, etc. That makes writing the review somewhat easier (and reduces the risk that when I’m on my seventh biography of Lincoln I don’t get this one confused with an earlier one).

      Some of the things I’ve enjoyed the most: finding new authors whose styles I really love, reading about some surprisingly interesting characters (I’m looking at you Teddy Roosevelt!) and learning an enormous amount about American history. And it’s great reading about fascinating people who aren’t widely appreciated – James Garfield is someone I *really* wish had lived a lot longer.

      Anyway, good luck with your journey!

      • Nicholas Gernt said:

        Hey Steve,

        Thanks for the response!

        During your first run through, did you read the one biography of the presidents in order and then start again? Or did you read all of the biographies about one president before moving to the next?

        Also, how many books did you read in the 7 years it took you to finish?

        Best,
        Nick

      • During my first run I read multiple books on each president (it was essentially a search for the best biography of each). After that, I began reading biographies of non-presidents as well, but also began skipping around to read other biographies of presidents I missed the first time for whatever reason. That first pass through the presidents incorporated 240 biographies.

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