Books

Forget Zoom video calls… see our pick of the best ever biographies

Make a royal appointment: Forget Zoom video calls… you can meet some of the world’s most fascinating people during lockdown (including Camilla AND Diana) with our pick of the best ever biographies

  • Roger Alton picks out some of the best biographies ever written
  • Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life brings the beloved author to life
  • Read Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen with tea

BEST OF BIOGRAPHY AND SCIENCE 

Charles Dickens: A Life

by Claire Tomalin

The greatest of English novelists deserves a great biography and Claire Tomalin delivers handsomely.

And what a life it was. Dickens packed a load in before his untimely death at the age of 58, burnt out by constant activity, heavy drinking and smoking, gout and a stroke. He loved performing and was sustained by the adoration of huge audiences, here and in the U.S.

Profitable it was, too: a speaking tour could earn him hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s money. He was offered advances worth well over the equivalent of £250,000 for his novels.

The greatest of English novelists deserves a great biography and Claire Tomalin delivers handsomely. Pictured, Charles Dickens

Tomalin brings the man and his time vividly to life, warts and all.

He could be cruel and dismissive. He treated his wife very badly — Dickens said he was unhappily married, but it did yield ten children so it can’t always have been that unhappy — deserting her to set up home with his mistress, a young actress called Nelly Ternan.

Tomalin is a terrific writer, and very good on all Dickens’s novels, but it is the man himself who leaps off the pages of this fine book.

I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen

by Sylvie Simmons

Cohen was one of the most influential voices of the modern age in music, poetry, performance and fiction — he was every bit as entitled to a Nobel prize as his friend and fellow performer Bob Dylan — and this enthralling, magisterial and meticulously researched volume is a fitting tribute.

Born into a prominent Jewish family in Montreal, Cohen also flirted with Scientology and was an ordained Buddhist monk. But it is life’s more earthly pleasures that he is better known for.

Leonard Cohen (pictured around 1970) was one of the most influential voices of the modern age in music, poetry, performance and fiction

An inexhaustible ladies’ man, few women could resist his charms and effortless charisma. But the casualties of Cohen’s commitment-phobia are never far from the surface.

He took prodigious amounts of drugs yet sailed effortlessly through them, as others fell by the wayside. There is a brilliant account here of how, totally stoned, he prevented a riot in the small hours at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival by simply talking calmly and singing hypnotically.

Like the best biographies, this book sends you back to his work. Read it with tea and oranges.

Mao: The Unknown Story

by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Anyone who thinks Chairman Mao was broadly a great leader with a bit of a dark side will find this doorstop of a tome is not for them. It is a brutal and detailed denunciation of the man the authors, a husband‑and-wife team, say was responsible for the slaughter of 70 million people.

Jung Chang wrote Wild Swans, a family memoir of three generations spanning China’s brutal 20th century, which became the biggest grossing non-fiction paperback in history.

A former Red Guard who saw the light, Chang is entitled to feel pretty disobliging to the Chinese leader. With her historian husband, she argues in considerable detail (the product of ten years of research and countless interviews) that Mao was as evil as Hitler or Stalin and did as much damage.

Anyone who thinks Chairman Mao (pictured) was broadly a great leader with a bit of a dark side will find this doorstop of a tome is not for them

This is Mao the crazed psycho, the gangster, the murderer, the sociopath. All he wanted, say the authors, was wealth and personal power. Ideology meant nothing: he despised equality and introduced brutal anti-peasant policies.

If history was thinking of reassessing Chairman Mao favourably, this book is a weighty corrective.

The Duchess: Camilla Parker Bowles And The Love Affair That Rocked The Crown

by Penny Junor

Veteran royal observer and commentator Junor broke a series of explosive exclusives with this, the first biography of the Duchess of Cornwall. Initially reviled by a public in thrall to Diana — and this is a book not overly sympathetic to the late Princess of Wales — Camilla has emerged as one of the most likeable and dedicated members of the Royal Family.

But it has been a long road. She had to put up with a series of infidelities by her first husband, the soldier Andrew Parker Bowles, then endure much public mockery as the details of her affair with Prince Charles started to emerge, not to mention considerable hostility from senior members of the Royal Family, revealed here for the first time, as the relationship became more and more open.

Veteran royal observer and commentator Junor broke a series of explosive exclusives with this, the first biography of the Duchess of Cornwall (pictured with Prince Charles in 1975)

One male observer talks about the ‘je ne sais quoi’ effect Camilla has on men when she enters a room. Well, it is possible to ‘sais quoi’ exactly: she is funny, attractive, buoyant and sexy, not something you could say about all the Windsors.

Above all, this is a story about a great love affair that has survived all manner of trials and tribulations. You cannot put down this book without wishing this warm, friendly woman a long and happy life.

Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton

The Years Of Lyndon Johnson

by Robert A. Caro

If Charles Moore’s trilogy on Margaret Thatcher sets a new standard for biography in Britain, its transatlantic counterpart is Robert A. Caro’s study of President Johnson — with four volumes to date, and at least one more in the pipeline. Like Moore, Caro began life as a reporter of distinction. Similarly, his life of Johnson has provoked a broad reassessment of Johnson’s extraordinary career.

It may have ended amid the bloodshed and bitterness of the Vietnam War, but in Johnson, the civil rights movement found not only a champion but its ultimate enabler.

From his subject’s dirt-poor origins in rural Texas, through his steady rise and numerous extramarital affairs, Caro deploys intense ‘method’ research, tracking down everyone he can interview, visiting every location, finding and reading every written record. His prose is always honed, mellifluous, elegant. How appropriate that the author already has an award endowed in his honour — the Robert Caro Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History.

Diana: Her True Story

by Andrew Morton

When this explosive book first came out nearly 30 years ago, some experts cast doubt on its authenticity by suggesting Morton could never have had access to such intimate material.

It wasn’t until after her death that it emerged the main source was Diana herself.

When Diana: Her True Story first came out nearly 30 years ago, some experts cast doubt on its authenticity by suggesting Morton could never have had access to such intimate material

Arguably the book amounted to the greatest royal scoop in history, causing permanent — and, frankly, justified — damage to the reputation of the Prince of Wales.

It wasn’t just that he continued to see Camilla throughout the marriage; these things do happen. It was that his warped ideas of duty, and streak of cowardice, allowed him to enter the marriage in the first place, and then to treat his wife with such cruelty. If Diana was bulimic and generally a bit of a handful, he treated her with a horrifying lack of compassion.

Churchill: Walking With Destiny

by Andrew Roberts

Roberts’s triumph was to realise that in the litany of failures in Churchill’s early career — such as Gallipoli or the return to the gold standard — lay the germ of his success in World War II.

Cometh the hour, cometh a man who had learned from his mistakes, in both the specific and the general sense: how to delegate, run a government and handle constant, immense pressure. ‘Although he was indeed walking with destiny in May 1940, it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping,’ Roberts writes.

Appreciating the ups and downs of his earlier life enabled him to ‘put those lessons to use during civilisation’s most testing hour’.

A compelling read.

Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life

by Andrew Motion

There can be few people who don’t love or can’t quote the verse of Philip Larkin: ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to but they do.’ Or even more memorably: ‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three /(which was rather late for me).’

For many, it will be the beautiful last line of An Arundel Tomb: ‘What will survive of us is love.’

Philip Larkin’s (pictured) biography won a slew of awards when it came out in 1993, and Motion has now written a new introduction

Larkin’s reputation has taken a kicking recently, for bizarre reasons. He was a private man, sure, maybe a bit of a loner and somewhat grumpy. But women loved him, as did his many friends, one of whom was former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion.

This exemplary biography won a slew of awards when it came out in 1993, and Motion has now written a new introduction. It is a riveting portrait of a towering figure who was offered the Laureateship himself but declined. Read it with a volume of Larkin’s verse open.

Billy

by Pamela Stephenson

Sir William, as we should probably call him after he was knighted in 2017, must be one of the most insanely talented and most admired men in the country. A brilliant stand-up (invariably voted Britain’s favourite), an accomplished artist, fine musician, a feted actor in some great films and a very good writer — is there nothing he can’t do?

A little bit, sadly, as since this book came out in 2001 Connolly has developed Parkinson’s disease, about which he has talked bravely and frankly.

Sir William Connolly (pictured), as we should probably call him after he was knighted in 2017, must be one of the most insanely talented and most admired men in the country

Now he and his wife Pamela Stephenson live happily in Florida, where Connolly enjoys fishing.

He has good days and bad days now and the role of Pamela in his care is central. She is a trained psychologist and this biography is revealing and painful.

Connolly, who was clearly exceptionally talented from a very young age, had a harrowing childhood: his mother walked out when he was young, he was brought up and bullied by an aunt, and abused by his father. Out of which grew a golden comic gift, which we can always treasure. 

A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking

Seven Brief Lessons On Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Gaia by James Lovelock

Gaia by James Lovelock

AND DON’T FORGET THE BEST OF THE BOFFINS! 

by Nick Rennison

A Brief History Of Time

by Stephen Hawking

Millions of people bought it. But how many succeeded in finishing it?

A Brief History Of Time, first published in 1988, has an unfair reputation as impossibly difficult to understand. 

In truth, it takes readers on a comprehensive but comprehensible journey from the tiniest particles of the quantum world to the vastness of the universe in just 200 pages.

Before his death in 2018, Hawking (pictured top) became the most famous scientist since Einstein. 

His body was twisted and confined to a wheelchair, but his imagination roamed free. His book is a fascinating account of our search, in Hawking’s own metaphor, ‘to know the mind of God’.

Seven Brief Lessons On Physics

by Carlo Rovelli

Time is an illusion and has no real existence. Sub-atomic particles interact instantly with one another over vast distances. Black holes are places in space where gravity is so strong, not even light can escape them.

The theories of modern physics undermine our notions of common sense. In his 2014 bestseller, Carlo Rovelli provides non-scientists with an elegant exposition of the most mind-bending ideas about the universe from the last 100 years.

A short book, but with some of the most exhilarating and thought-provoking concepts you will ever encounter.

Gaia

by James Lovelock

Does the entire Earth function as a single organism? Can it self-regulate to ensure that life on it is sustained? James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, first brought to public attention in this trailblazing book of 1979, suggests that the answer to both these questions is ‘yes’.

Lovelock, who turned 100 last year, has never been afraid of thinking the unthinkable. Naming his theory after the Greek goddess of the earth, he put forward ideas that have remained controversial.

His daring model of the world provides powerful support for anyone appalled by our more reckless assaults on the planet and the environment.

Silent Spring

by Rachel Carson

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

‘Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth,’ Rachel Carson wrote in 1962, ‘find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.’

As she looked at the world around her, she saw that beauty under threat. Her particular target in Silent Spring was the irresponsible, indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Many of those she attacked, such as DDT, are now banned. But her general point about Man’s impact on the natural world remains only too valid.

The Gene: An Intimate History

by Siddhartha Mukherjee

An obscure 19th-century monk undertakes a series of groundbreaking experiments with peas in his monastery garden. Two young scientists burst into a Cambridge pub and announce to the startled drinkers assembled there that they have discovered ‘the secret of life’. Nazi doctors inflict the horrors of eugenic experiments on subject peoples.

In his 2016 book, Siddhartha Mukherjee chronicles what he calls ‘one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science’. Genetics has transformed our understanding of what it is to be human. Mukherjee examines its past, present and potential future in an enlightening work.

The Selfish Gene

by Richard Dawkins

‘We are survival machines,’ Richard Dawkins wrote in this 1976 book, ‘. . . blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.’

Today, Dawkins is most famous as a militant atheist, but his lasting legacy is likely to be his work as an evolutionist.

Genes, he argued, are on a quest for immortality and, like all other living creatures, we are the vehicles they are using for the journey.

In the past 40 years, genetics has taken remarkable leaps, such as the completion of the Human Genome Project. Yet Dawkins’s book remains a landmark work and one which first introduced the word ‘meme’.  

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