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25 Fascinating Biographies Every College Student Should Read

Posted on Tuesday June 15, 2010 by Staff Writers

By Lauren Bailey

College is a tricky time: It’s a formative period that often shapes who you are and where you will go, but you don’t realize it until much later. Because of that, it can often help to study the lives and deeds of famous men and women to see where they came from and better understand how a person’s course is created by the world around them. Biographies let us understand people better, which in turn can help us figure out our own path. Here are 25 fascinating biographies that every college student should read and remember.

  1. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963: Robert Dallek enjoyed amazing access to personal documents to create this compelling, masterful biography of one of the most compelling American presidents of all time.
  2. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: Author Doris Kearns Goodwin has many political volumes to her name, but this one is a cut above. As a member of Johnson’s White House staff, she had a front-row seat for his contentious administration, and her access makes for a gripping biography of a man thrust into the spotlight of leadership.
  3. Huey Long: Huey Long, aka “The Kingfish,” was a divisive figure in Southern politics in the early 20th century, and would later inspire the central character in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. This biography by T. Harry Williams won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for its fascinating profile of a man whose death remains a source of debate.
  4. Let it Blurt: The Life & Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic: Arguably one of the best rock critics of all time, and certainly one of the most impassioned, Lester Bangs wrote for Rolling Stone and Creem among other outlets before dying of a drug overdose at 33. Jim Derogatis’ biography is a fantastic portrait of the man whose voice helped define 1970s rock.
  5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As told to Alex Haley (Roots), the autobiography of Malcolm X is a riveting look at the life and events of one of the biggest figures in the civil rights movement.
  6. Truman: David McCullough has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, and the first time was for this sprawling, landmark biography of President Harry Truman.
  7. John Adams: This fantastically detailed story of one of the nation’s founding fathers won author David McCullough his second Pulitzer and inspired an HBO miniseries.
  8. The Kid Stays in the Picture: Robert Evans racked up credits like The Godfather and Rosemary’s Baby during his peak as a Hollywood producer, and his autobiography is packed with wild and engaging stories about what it was like to get movies made.
  9. Peter the Great: His Life and World: This Pulitzer winner from Robert K. Massie takes college students and other readers through Russian history and the rule of one its most infamous rulers.
  10. Gandhi, an Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth: Gandhi’s autobiography is one of the best resources available for students looking to learn more about the leader who pioneered civil disobedience in his quest for social justice.
  11. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York: Author Robert Caro offers a searing look at the life and practices of Robert Moses, an urban planner whose contributions and tactics in the shaping of New York City made him one of the most controversial figures there who never held elected office. A vital read for anyone looking to understand Moses and, by extension, modern New York.
  12. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character): This autobiography, by turns comic and serious, relates stories from the life of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, whose work included the Manhattan Project.
  13. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a renowned theologian, but this biography highlights his formative years as well as his involvement in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
  14. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America: Mary Harris Jones’ biography details her exploits as one of the most famous union organizers of all time, and her work inspired a magazine that was named after her.
  15. Marie Antoinette: The Journey: Antonia Fraser writes about Marie Antoinette with a sharp eye, giving college students a fresh take on the elusive French ruler.
  16. Personal History: Katharine Graham led The Washington Post for more than 20 years, and her autobiography talks of her time there during some of the nation’s most difficult periods, including the Watergate scandal. The book won the Pulitzer Prize.
  17. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Arguably the most important figure in the struggle for civil rights in 20th century America, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a large life cut short by an assassin. This volume captures his works and thoughts better than almost any other.
  18. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House: Newsweek editor Jon Meacham crafts a fantastic portrait of Andrew Jackson, a divisive but important president.
  19. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt’s name is synonymous with capitalism and power, and this gripping biography shows how he got his start and played a role in everything from the Civil War to the transportation revolution.
  20. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America: Douglas Brinkley writes about Teddy Roosevelt with flair, and this biography highlights his efforts to sustain the shrinking remnants of the American frontier.
  21. Churchill: Paul Johnson’s biography is an indispensable account of the life of one the most important figures in global politics of the past 100 years.
  22. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Stephen King’s memoir is a great read for college students for two reasons: It’s a well-told autobiography as well as a fantastic primer in what it takes to be a writer.
  23. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Jean-Dominique Bauby’s autobiography is a stirring testament to resilience: He was left almost completely paralyzed after a car accident and wrote this book by dictating its words one letter at a time by blinking his left eye.
  24. Angela’s Ashes: Frank McCourt’s acclaimed autobiography creates a compelling portrait of his poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland.
  25. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Dave Eggers burst onto the literary scene with this rule-breaking memoir about his parents’ death and his subsequent efforts to raise his younger brother. A beautiful, hilarious book.