20 best biographies of all time

This article is a compilation of 20 best biographies of all time. These books have captivated readers with their compelling stories of real-life experiences, and many have been turned into successful movies. Moreover, all of these titles have sold over 1 million copies, making them some of the most popular and widely read books in history.

Biographies and autobiographies have long fascinated readers. They offer a glimpse into the lives of remarkable individuals, giving us insight into their personal experiences, struggles and triumphs. A biography is a written account of someone’s life, typically written by another person. It covers the individual’s life story, achievements, experiences and significant events.
An autobiography, on the other hand, is a written account of a person’s own life, narrated by themselves. It provides insights into their personal experiences, thoughts and reflections.

Read on to learn about 10 best autobiographies and 10 best biographies of all time.

The Autobiography of Benjamin FranklinDiana
The Diary of Samuel PepysInto the Wild
The Souls of Black FolkTruman
The Story of My Experiments with TruthAlexander Hamilton
The Second SexTeam of Rivals
The Diary of a Young GirlUnbroken
I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
A Brief History of TimeSteve Jobs
Long Walk to FreedomThe Everything Store
Eat, Pray, LoveElon Musk

10 best autobiographies of all time

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791) by Benjamin Franklin

The earliest title on the list of the best biographies of all time is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It was written by Benjamin Franklin and published posthumously in 1791. The Autobiography provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of America’s founding fathers. Franklin recounts his journey from humble beginnings to becoming a prominent figure in American history. The autobiography is celebrated for its candid narrative. Moreover, it offers valuable insights into Franklin’s intellectual pursuits, entrepreneurial endeavours and civic contributions.

Franklin’s account is a personal memoir and a reflection on virtues and self-improvement, showcasing his commitment to moral and ethical development. His emphasis on industry, frugality and public service has left an enduring impact on American cultural values.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys (19th c.) by Samuel Pepys

The Diary of Samuel Pepys is a comprehensive first-hand account of life in seventeenth-century London. The diary vividly captures Pepys’ personal experiences, observations and the societal milieu of the time. Pepys, a naval administrator, provides a meticulous record of his professional life, including his interactions with influential figures and his assessments of political events, such as the Restoration of Charles II.

This title landed on the list of best biographies of all time because of its intimate portrayal of Pepys’ personal life, offering candid insights into his relationships, health and daily activities. The entries encompass various topics, from his passionate interest in the arts and sciences to his reflections on societal issues and personal vices. The diary is celebrated for its honesty, providing a genuine and unfiltered perspective on Pepys’ character and the complexities of the Restoration era.

The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W. E. B. Du Bois

Published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois explores the social, political and psychological challenges faced by African Americans in the post-Civil War United States. Du Bois, a scholar and civil rights activist, presents a collection of essays addressing the duality of African American identity, highlighting the struggles of being both black and American.

Deservedly, The Souls of Black Folk landed on the list of the best biographies of all time. It is a powerful sociological analysis and a literary masterpiece. It blends Du Bois’s prose with poignant reflections on race, culture and the enduring quest for equality. Its impact extends far beyond its time, laying the groundwork for later civil rights movements.

The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927) by Mahatma Gandhi

The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi, chronicles the life of one of the most influential figures in modern history. Published in 1927, Gandhi’s narrative explores his personal and spiritual journey and experiences that shaped his philosophy of non-violent resistance.

Gandhi delves into his early years in India, his struggles with self-discipline and his quest for truth. He candidly reflects on his experiments with various moral and ethical principles, admitting his failures and evolving beliefs.

The impact of this autobiography lies in its role as a manifesto for Gandhian principles, influencing subsequent movements for civil rights and social justice worldwide. The narrative offers profound insights into the mind of a leader who sought personal transformation while championing larger social and political causes.

The Second Sex (1949) by Simone de Beauvoir

While not a traditional autobiography, de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is a seminal feminist text that has profoundly influenced feminist philosophy and discussions about gender. De Beauvoir, a French existentialist philosopher, delves into the historical, cultural and existential aspects of women’s oppression, challenging prevailing notions of femininity and gender roles. De Beauvoir’s central thesis revolves around the idea that women are the ‘other’ in a patriarchal society, defined and confined by the male perspective. She critiques societal expectations, marriage and motherhood, urging women to transcend traditional roles and embrace freedom and self-determination.

First published in 1949, The Second Sex was a groundbreaking, risqué book that became a runaway success. Selling 20,000 copies in its first week alone, it earned its author both notoriety and admiration.

The Second Sex is a foundational text in feminist literature, inspiring subsequent generations of feminists and scholars. Moreover, it sparked discussions on gender equality and women’s liberation across various disciplines.

The Diary of a Young Girl (1952) by Anne Frank

While not a traditional biography, Anne Frank’s diary provides a powerful and personal account of her life during the Holocaust. The Diary of a Young Girl captures her thoughts, experiences and emotions as a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Anne writes about her dreams, conflicts with others in hiding and reflections on humanity.

Tragically, the diary ends abruptly as the Nazis discover Anne and her family. It was published posthumously in 1952 by Anne’s father, who survived the war. The diary has since become a classic of world literature. It has touched the hearts of millions of readers with its intimate portrayal of a young girl’s life, dreams, and the harsh realities of war. The work remains a symbol of the human cost of the Holocaust and the importance of remembering history. According to National GeographicThe Diary has sold 30 million copies since publication in 1952.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a poignant and powerful exploration of her early life. The book covers Angelou’s childhood and adolescence, depicting her struggles with racism, trauma and identity search. The narrative begins in the racially segregated South and recounts her experiences of sexual abuse. This trauma led the author to become selectively mute for several years.

Angelou’s journey is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. The title, drawn from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, metaphorically captures the oppressive nature of racism and societal expectations. Angelou’s prose is both lyrical and brutally honest as she navigates the challenges of growing up as a black woman in America. The work is a timeless exploration of race, gender and the human capacity for transformation. 

It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970 and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 2 years. It sold over 1 million copies, has been translated into 17 languages and has never been out of print.

A Brief History of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking is a groundbreaking exploration of the fundamental principles that govern the universe. In this accessible yet profound work, Hawking takes readers on a journey through the complexities of theoretical physics, unravelling the mysteries of space, time and the nature of existence.

The book delves into topics like the Big Bang, black holes and the nature of time itself. It presents complex scientific concepts in an engaging and comprehensible way to a general audience. Bridging the gap between the scientific community and the general public is one of the most impactful aspects of the book. Hawking’s wit, storytelling prowess and knowledge of theoretical physics make A Brief History of Time a landmark in popular science literature.

Since 1988, it has been published in 30 languages and sold more than 11 million copies worldwide. The book gained a new wave of popularity when the biographical romantic drama film The Theory of Everything hit the screens in 2014. Set at the University of Cambridge, it details Hawking’s personal and professional life.

Long Walk to Freedom (1994) by Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It provides a compelling narrative of his life, struggles and triumphs in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. It spans Mandela’s early years, political activism, imprisonment and eventual presidency. The resulting narrative is a testament to resilience and the pursuit of justice.

Mandela describes his rural upbringing, legal studies and initiation into activism against racial oppression. Mandela’s imprisonment for 27 years is a central theme. It reflects his sacrifice for the anti-apartheid cause. The book captures his evolution from a fiery young revolutionary to a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Upon his release in 1990, Mandela played a crucial role in dismantling apartheid, leading to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. Elected as South Africa’s first black president, Mandela embraced reconciliation, promoting unity in a divided nation. Long Walk to Freedom sold over 15 million copies and was later adapted into a film. A 2013 biographical film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick, starred Idris Elba and Naomie Harris.

Eat, Pray, Love (2006) by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is a bestselling memoir chronicling the author’s transformative journey of self-discovery across three countries. After a painful divorce and a tumultuous rebound relationship, Gilbert embarks on a year-long quest for balance and meaning.

The narrative follows 3 parts, each corresponding to a different country: Italy, India and Indonesia. In Italy, Gilbert indulges in the pleasures of food, savouring the culinary delights and learning the art of pleasure. In India, she delves into spirituality, seeking solace and enlightenment through intense meditation. Finally, she finds love and a renewed sense of self in Indonesia.

The memoir is praised for its candid and humorous writing style and exploration of universal themes such as love, spirituality and the pursuit of happiness. Gilbert’s journey resonates with readers as she confronts her vulnerabilities and strives to rebuild her life. Eat, Pray, Love became a cultural phenomenon, prompting discussions about the transformative power of travel and introspection. It sold 12 million copies worldwide and was adapted into a 2010 film starring Julia Roberts.

10 best biographies of all time

Diana (1992) by Andrew Morton

One of the best biographies of all times, "Diana: Her True Story" by Andrew Morton

The first on the list of the best biographies of all time is Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton. The book unveils the hidden struggles and private turmoil behind the glamorous facade of the People’s Princess. Drawing from interviews with Diana and her circle, Morton describes a woman trapped in the confines of royalty.

The narrative unfolds Diana’s journey from a shy young bride to a global icon, exploring her tumultuous marriage to Prince Charles (now King Charles). Morton delves into the emotional toll of Diana’s struggles with bulimia, self-harm and the impact of Charles’ infidelity. The book exposes the royal family’s role in shaping her public image and highlights Diana’s determination to carve her own path.

Her True Story stirred controversy upon its release, as it impacted the carefully crafted image of the royal family. It became a bestseller, sparking widespread discussions about the challenges faced by Diana and redefining the public perception of the British monarchy. The book remains a revealing and influential account of the life of one of the most beloved and tragic figures in modern history.

Since publishing in 1992, the book has been reported to have sold over 7 million copies in 80 different countries and has been translated into 29 different languages.

Into the Wild (1996) by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer traces the life and tragic journey of Christopher McCandless, a young man who abandons conventional society to explore the Alaskan wilderness. Adopting the alias Alexander Supertramp, McCandless leaves behind his material possessions and sets out on a nomadic adventure. His desire for independence and a rejection of societal norms are the drivers of his journey.

Krakauer weaves McCandless’s story with his own experiences as a mountaineer and explorer, creating a narrative that delves into the complexities of the human spirit and the allure of the wild. The book examines McCandless’s motivations, the impact of his choices on those he encounters and the broader themes of self-discovery and the pursuit of a meaningful existence.

Into the Wild is a biography and a reflection on the tension between the call of the wilderness and the responsibilities of societal connections. Krakauer explores McCandless’s character with empathy, acknowledging both the romantic allure of his adventure and the tragic consequences of his isolation.

Into the Wild reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list for 65 weeks, selling 650,000 copies. Although no official statistics are available, it is safe to assume that Into the Wild sold over 1 million copies worldwide. In 2007, Sean Penn directed a film adaptation of the book under the same title, with Emile Hirsch starring as McCandless. 

Truman (1992) by David McCullough

One of the best biographies of all times, "Truman" by David McCullough

Truman by David McCullough is a comprehensive biography of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. McCullough portrays Truman’s life from his humble beginnings in Missouri to his unexpected ascent to the presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. The biography explores Truman’s leadership during critical moments such as World War II, the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan and the post-war reconstruction efforts. McCullough highlights Truman’s integrity, decisiveness and commitment to public service, revealing his struggles and achievements as a leader. Moreover, the book provides insight into Truman’s relationships with key figures such as his wife Bess, General Douglas MacArthur, and Winston Churchill.

Through meticulous research and vivid storytelling, McCullough offers readers a compelling portrait of Truman’s presidency and enduring legacy in American history. It spent 43 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, received a Pulitzer Prize and sold over a million copies. In 1995, HBO adapted it into a television movie starring Gary Sinise as Truman.

Alexander Hamilton (2004) by Ron Chernow

Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton brings to life one of the founding fathers of the United States. The book traces Alexander Hamilton’s extraordinary journey from his impoverished upbringing to his pivotal role in shaping the American nation.

Chernow explores Hamilton’s multifaceted contributions, from drafting the Constitution to establishing the nation’s financial system as the first Secretary of the Treasury. The biography delves into Hamilton’s complex personality, highlighting his brilliance and ambition. Moreover, it touches upon his contentious relationships with fellow statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

Beyond Hamilton’s political endeavours, Chernow delves into his personal life, detailing the scandals, tragedies and romantic entanglements. Furthermore, the narrative captures the tensions of the early American republic, offering insights into the ideological conflicts that laid the foundation for the nation.

Chernow’s work gained popularity with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton, which drew inspiration from the biography. The musical has also helped spur sales of Ron Chernow’s biography, which has sold more than a million copies.

Team of Rivals (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln explores Abraham Lincoln’s leadership during one of the most turbulent periods in American history. Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicles Lincoln’s rise to the presidency and his ability to assemble a diverse cabinet composed of his former rivals. Through storytelling and research, she reveals Lincoln’s political acumen, empathy and strategic brilliance. Rather than seeking to dominate his opponents, Lincoln embraced their differing viewpoints and utilised their talents to form a team.

Moreover, Goodwin highlights Lincoln’s mastery of communication and capacity for forging personal connections with individuals from all walks of life. She demonstrates how Lincoln’s humility, integrity and commitment to democratic principles strengthened his presidency and contributed to the eventual abolition of slavery. Despite facing pressure and criticism, Lincoln remained dedicated to preserving the Union and upholding the ideals of freedom and equality. 

Team of Rivals offers readers a compelling portrait of Lincoln’s leadership style and his enduring legacy as one of America’s greatest presidents. According to the publisher, Team of Rivals sold over 1 million copies. Furthermore, Barack Obama cited it as one of his favourite books. In 2012, Steven Spielberg directed a film based on the book, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

Unbroken (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand

One of the best biographies of all times, "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a gripping and inspirational tale of human endurance set against the World War II backdrop. The biography centres around Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete turned bombardier whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini and two crewmates survived on a life raft for a record-breaking 47 days, battling starvation and nature.

Next, captured by the Japanese, Zamperini endures unspeakable brutality as a prisoner of war. Hillenbrand vividly detailed the physical and psychological torments he faced. The narrative goes beyond the war. It further chronicled Zamperini’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism upon his return to civilian life.

Unbroken stands out for Hillenbrand’s meticulous research and storytelling prowess. It balances the brutality of war with themes of resilience and redemption. Zamperini’s indomitable spirit and ability to forgive his captors form the heart of the story. Readers are left with a reflection on the endurance of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The book’s powerful message makes it a testament to the strength of the human will beyond the World War II setting.

Hillenbrand’s two bestselling non-fiction books, Seabiscuit and Unbroken, have sold over 10 million copies, and each was adapted into a film. Directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken starred Jack O’Connell as Zamperini.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot

One of the best biographies of all times, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

Next on the list of best biographies of all time is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book is a compelling narrative intertwining science and ethics. It presents the story of Henrietta Lacks as the unwitting donor of the HeLa cell line. This line of cells proved to be immortal and played a pivotal role in medical breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine and cancer research advancements.

Skloot skillfully weaves together the scientific significance of HeLa cells with the poignant story of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was an African American woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge or consent in 1951. The author explores the ethical implications of scientific research and the impact on Henrietta’s family, who lived in poverty.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide, translated into over 25 languages. HBO adapted this New York Times bestseller into a critically acclaimed film starring Oprah Winfrey in 2017.

Steve Jobs (2011) by Walter Isaacson

One of the best biographies of all times, "Steve jobs" by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs is an insightful biography that unravels the complex life and visionary mind of Apple co-founder. Isaacson drew on extensive interviews and research. They helped him present a nuanced portrait of the tech pioneer, capturing his brilliance and notoriously difficult personality.

The biography traces Jobs’ journey from the garage-based beginnings of Apple in the 1970s to the iconic product launches. It portrays Jobs’ relentless pursuit of innovation and perfection and his charismatic leadership. At the same time, it touches upon his personal and professional highs and lows. For instance, Isaacson delves into Jobs’ tumultuous relationships, his departure from and triumphant return to Apple and the creation of iconic products like the Macintosh, iPod and iPhone.

Isaacson’s book sold 379,000 copies in the US in its first week of sales. Steve Jobs sold 3 million copies in the US in the first 4 years alone. In 2015, Michael Fassbender starred as Jobs in a film based on Isaacson’s biography.

The Everything Store (2013) by Brad Stone

One of the best biographies of all times, "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon" by Brad Stone

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone provides an inside look at the rise of Amazon and its founder. Stone traces Bezos’s journey from his early days as a driven entrepreneur to creating one of the world’s most influential and successful companies. He portrays Bezos as a relentless innovator with an insatiable appetite for growth and disruption.

The biography reveals Bezos’s strategic vision, willingness to take risks and relentless pursuit of customer satisfaction. Stone explores Amazon’s evolution from an online bookstore to a global e-commerce powerhouse. He delves into Bezos’s leadership style, emphasising his long-term thinking, frugality and innovation. Stone also examines the controversies surrounding Amazon, including its treatment of workers, aggressive business tactics, and impact on traditional retail. Despite criticism, Bezos’s drive and innovation have reshaped industries and transformed how people shop, read and consume media. 

The Everything Store offers readers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of the most influential figures in the digital age. According to the author, the book sold over 1 million copies in 35 languages.

Elon Musk (2015) by Ashlee Vance

Finally, the most recent title on the list of best biographies of all time is Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance. It delves into the life and achievements of Elon Musk, the visionary entrepreneur and innovator. The book explores Musk’s ambitious pursuits, starting with co-founding PayPal. It also touches upon his other ventures: Tesla revolutionising the automotive industry and SpaceX pushing the boundaries of space exploration. Vance chronicles Musk’s relentless drive, audacious goals and unyielding determination to tackle climate change and space colonisation.

Through meticulous research and interviews, the biography provides insight into his leadership style, personal sacrifices and occasional controversies. It highlights Musk’s ability to disrupt traditional industries, uncompromising pursuit of excellence and vision for the future. Despite setbacks, Musk’s relentless pursuit of innovation has solidified his status as one of the most influential 21st-century figures.

This final title on the list of the best biographies of all time sold over 2 million copies. The Wall Street Journal, Amazon and Audible declared it one of the best books of 2015.

How to write a biography to be counted among the best biographies of all time?

Crafting a masterpiece that will be counted among the best biographies of all time is a challenging task, which requires plenty of effort and dedication. However, with the help of professional editing services, authors can refine their manuscript and create a compelling narrative. To be counted among the best biographies of all time, a manuscript must captivate readers with its engaging story and real-life experiences. A professional editor can help authors achieve this goal by providing a range of services that focus on the structure, substance and technical aspects of writing.

For instance, developmental editing can help authors with the overall structure of their manuscript. This will ensure that the story flows logically and coherently. This service can also provide feedback on character development, pacing and dialogue. In turn, this editorial intervention can help authors create a vivid narrative that will be counted among the best biographies of all time.

Next, copyediting focuses on the technical aspects of writing, such as grammar, syntax and spelling. The editor can also help authors with consistency, ensuring that the manuscript adheres to a particular style guide. This service can help authors produce a polished manuscript that is worthy of listing among the best biographies of all time.

Finally, proofreading is the last step in the editing process. It involves the editor checking for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. This ensures that the manuscript is polished and ready for publication.

By working with professional editing services, authors can ensure that their manuscript is of the highest quality. These services can provide authors with constructive feedback, expert advice and the attention to detail necessary to create a masterpiece.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the best biographies of all time serve as a source of inspiration for readers and writers. Especially those who aspire to pen their own biography or autobiography. These books offer invaluable insights into the personal experiences, struggles and triumphs of real people. Furthermore, they can provide a blueprint for crafting compelling narratives. From Benjamin Franklin’s journey to becoming a founding father to Gandhi’s pursuit of truth through non-violent resistance, these biographies showcase the power of storytelling to inspire, educate and entertain.

Remember that professional editing services may play a vital role in preparing your biography for publication. They include developmental, line, copyediting and proofreading. The editing process ensures coherence, readability and accuracy, allowing biographies and autobiographies to connect with readers effectively.

Contact me for a free sample edit of your manuscript (and remember to use my early bird discount). I am an experienced editor working with non-fiction, academic and business texts. I can help prepare your text for publication, from a big-picture analysis through bringing to the fore your authorial voice to ensuring the correctness and consistency of the language.

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).