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Ask HN: Biographies recommendations – both Westerner and Non-westerner
71 points by ahmaman on May 22, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments
Which biographies have you enjoyed reading that had somewhat an impact on you? Both westerner & non-westerner biographies are welcome.

Some of the topics I care about: - Philosophy - Entrepreneurship - Technology - Culture - History

The Power Broker - the story of how an idealist turned into Darth Vader

The Years of Lyndon Johnson - the story of how LBJ rigged the 1948 election for Senate and rose to power

Here's an excerpt from an interview with the author of both books:

> During all these years I did come to understand stuff about power that I wanted people to know. You read in every textbook that cliché: Power corrupts. In my opinion, I’ve learned that power does not always corrupt. Power can cleanse. When you’re climbing to get power, you have to use whatever methods are necessary, and you have to conceal your aims. Because if people knew your aims, it might make them not want to give you power. Prime example: the southern senators who raised Lyndon Johnson up in the Senate. They did that because he had made them believe that he felt the same way they did about black people and segregation. But then when you get power, you can do what you want. So power reveals. Do I want people to know that? Yes.

I can't recommend The Power Broker more highly. It is one of my favorite books, and one of the books that I believe actually gave me new insights into how the world works.

I actually haven't read his LBJ series yet, and I'm really looking forward to it.

I just read about 70% of The Power Broker before having to return it to the library - what a book. I was surprised at how easy it was to read something so long, with often pretty banal subject matter. Reading it reminded me of that piece of advice often given to college freshmen about finding the best professor on campus and taking their classes: even if you're totally uninterested in the subject at the start, you'll get drawn in by the professor's enthusiasm and ability.

I really love the Robert Caro LBJ series. I'm on the second one now and they're hard to put down.

(I also think it's one of the best descriptions of why the romanticized simple life of a subsistence farmer misses how incredibly hard their lives are. There'a a ~4 page section describing what life was like for farmers in Hill country in E. Texas before electrification, and it's so incredibly similar to how our farmers live now. )

I read the Power Broker whenever I get promoted or things go really well. That transformation is tale worth reflecting on.

He also has a new book out, "Working." It's a pretty short read compared to his other stuff, and he shares a few new stories about what he had to do to get some of his material. All around great stuff.

As a meta-recommendation, I suggest checking out Five Books [1]. It's a website dedicated to bringing in experts and having them suggest five books that best represent their given fields. The archive of interviews on Five Books covers all the topics listed above and more.

[1] https://fivebooks.com/

The Fish Who Ate The Whale. If you think Bezos and Zuckerberg are cunning & determined entrepreneurs Sam the Banana Man will blow your mind.

To give you a taste: His opponents (a large, well-funded and established competitor) stymied his attempt to get permission to build a bridge across a river. Undeterred, Sam built two piers. One from each side of the river. They told him he couldn’t build a bridge. No one ever told him he couldn’t build piers.

He was probably too good at what he set out to do but he built an empire that still exists today out of bananas that were destined for garbage.

My favorite entrepreneurial book to recommend to others because so few have read or heard of it ... absolutely epic

Thanks for the advice and description, added to my read list.

My Experiments with Truth - Mahatma Ghandhi Autobiography of a Yogi - Beyond the last blue mountain - RM Lala (on JRD Tata) The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin O Manas ke Hans (Hindi biography of Ramkrishna Paramhans who was the guru of Shri Vivekanand) Narendra Modi - nilanjan mukhopadhyay Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel - kaushal goyal Steve Jobs - Issacson

(While writing i realized that since last one year my outlook towards reading has shifted to politics like anything)

I just finished reading Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Issacson and it was so good that i had to "reset" my HN password just to make this comment.

How good is it compared to Isaacson's Jobs or Einstein biographies?

I unfortunately haven't read either or those. Jobs biography became too famous that I didn't feel like reading it (^_^). I will pick Einstein at some point in the future. This was my first read from Issacson.

A book got too famous so you didn't feel like reading it? I don't understand that logic

I like biographies by Tracy Kidder:

"A truck full of money" About Paul English the founder of Kyak.com. 'One mans quest to recover from great success"


Another Tracy Kidder biography is "Mountains beyond Moutains" this book traces the life of physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountains_Beyond_Mountains

It isn't really a biography, but soul of a new machine is really interesting story about 80s computer companies. He won a pulizer for it.


Stillness Flowing Biography of Ajahn Chah https://www.abhayagiri.org/books/617-stillness-flowing

He is a Thai Buddhist monk, who is responsible for introducing mindfulness/insight mediation to the west.

Both biography and autobiography

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

My Life and Work by Henry Ford

My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla by Ben Johnston and Nikola Tesla

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Charles Darwin

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

I have a guilty pleasure of reading biographies of people who are moderately famous/wealthy/successful and are talking themselves up, as I think they reveal interesting things about the human condition and ambition. On that note I enjoyed “Time to Make the Donuts” and “Money Monster”, both on entrepreneurship.

I go back to some greats like Benjamin Franklin as well, but the books on the margin lacking polish can be more interesting.

Genius by James Gleick is the best biography I've ever read. It's about the life of Richard Feynman.

Gleick's Isaac Newton is also fantastic.

http://meganmarshallauthor.com/books_peabodysisters.shtml - since I live in Boston area, especially interesting to hearabout both how the area has changed culturally and physically, and to learn about people whose homes I have visited on tours of historic homes.

https://www.amazon.com/Autobiography-Yukichi-Fukuzawa/dp/023... - great perspective on a period of massive intellectual/cutural/political change in Japan

https://www.amazon.com/Annie-Besant-Lives-Modern-Women/dp/01... - interesting to see change and continuity in the life of someone extremely capable and influential

Any other recommendation of Japan's books in English.

A fictionalized biography to be sure, but I highly recommend Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa: https://www.amazon.com/Musashi-Epic-Novel-Samurai-Era/dp/156... about the famous samurai. It reads like a fantasy novel.

Also Taiko by the same author is a fictionalized version of the 3 kingdoms period, told from an interesting perspective.

Jungle Soldier - story of Freddie Spencer Chapman (like Lawrence of Arabia, but even better story)

Left to Tell - Immaculée Ilibagiza's life, story of survival of the Rwandan Genocide and a tale of how to live on after such tragedy and how to forgive the unforgiveable.

Longitude - essentially a biography of John Harrison, the man who solved the longitude problem (and probably thereby made the success of the British Empire)

X, Y & Z - a brilliant biography of all the French, English and Polish codebreakers of WW2

Agent Zigzag - the story of the man who betrayed everyone and could possibly have killed Hitler if he was allowed

William Pitt the Younger (Robin Reilly) - possibly one of the most difficult periods in British History saw one of the best British Prime Ministers to date

Kukuczka - the story of how he became one of the world's most impressive climbers despite communist oppression

The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History - a highly interesting book that brings the necessary documents to the table to help understand a topic that is often treated in a very facile way

Ivan III and the Unification of Russia - a great book for understanding the basis on which Russia was built

Xenophon's Anabasis - what a load of fun. How to lead a failed army back home and gorge on mad honey

"American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer"

A lot about American and international politics during the Manhattan Project that is very insightful.

Here are some that I've enjoyed reading:

Steve Martin - Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Kevin Mitnick - Ghost In The Wires

Kenneth Roman - The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising

Walter Isaacson - Steve Jobs

Alan Deutschman - The Second Coming of Steve Jobs

James Wallace - Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire

Alice Schroeder - The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Richard Branson - Losing My Virginity

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson A mathematician's apology by G.H Hardy My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror by Victor Sebestyen Hamilton by Ron Chernow

_Limonov_ by Emmanuel Carrère is a sensitive and conflicting portrait of an extraordinary Russian (who's still alive).

Quickly read: The "Personal Narrative" sections of Richard Gabriel's Patterns of Software, available at https://www.dreamsongs.com/Files/PatternsOfSoftware.pdf

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Born Standing Up (Steve Martin's autobiography)

Shoe dog by Phil Knight, Nike Founder.

Best book on entrepreneurship journey, I have ever read.

The book is a heartfelt autobiography.

Wright Brothers by David McCullough Bonanza King: John McKay by Gregory Crouch Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance My Life as a Goddess by Guy Branum Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

The last two are especially good as audiobook autobiographies read by the author.

All of the Walter Isaacson biographies are fantastic.

To understand how modern digital ecosystem came to be I cannot think of a better combination than Isaacson's "Innovators" and "The Dream Machine" by Waldrop.

His Leonardo biography is mediocre at best. It may read smoothly but he lacks a good grasp of the subject matter. Instead, Leonardo is like an earlier Steve Jobs of some kind.

IMO, Leonardo biography is an ok exposition to the time period and contains interesting trivia.

Could you recommend a better biography from that period?

I've enjoyed some of Walter Isaacson's books but always worried an internet-intellectual would roast me for that.

I think those biographies are more pop than his fans like to think and more academic than his detractors might imagine.

I don't think there is anything wrong in 'pop' when the work is intended to be popular. I expect the biographer to verify her sources but as a reader I'm not going to go out (generally) to verify them.

Things that happened, happened. Most of all when reading popular biographies I want to be introduced to real things that happened, and if some of that draws my interest, I can then dig in to more academic sources.

The popular biographies offer the '100 feet' view over their subject and the society in which they lived in, and should not be disparaged if they succeed in doing that in a readable and entertaining manner.

Yeah, I just think 'pop' is a good word to take down something seen as a comprehensive work when it's more of a '100 foot overview.'

That's a rare thing, though. The adjective should probably be used neutrally way more often than derogatorily.

Is his Einstein biography any better?

I enjoyed all of historical Isaacson biographies (Einstein, Leonardo, Jobs, Franklin and Innovators).

I suppose the the biographies would need a more detailed critique of what people did not like in them to say anything particular about one of them.

Jobs biography alone does not give a sufficient image of the man, for example. But when combined with "Becoming Steve Jobs" the picture is more well rounded. That does not mean I did not enjoy the book.

May sound like a cliche but Mahatma Gandhi's "My experiment with Truth." is a good read to get an idea of the philosophy of a major percentage of world population throughout the history.

Two worthwhile autobiographies - Phil Knight's "Shoe Dog" (about the growth of Nike) and Kay Graham's "Personal History" (about the Washington Post)

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age.

Walter Isaacson books

I enjoyed iWoz, the autobiography of Steve Wozniak about how Apple Inc. got started. A little known fact is that Woz still works for Apple doing promotional stuff for the company.

The Singapore Story - Lee Kuan Yew

Biography of Malcolm X

Deng Xiaopeng and the Transformation of China

The Power Broker

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel ; it's impossible to understand how he figured out the amazing things he did. His story is a tragedy.

Locke: A biography by Roger Woolhouse ; the father of classical liberalism in a time of upheaval in England, interactions with the king, banishment to Holland, promoted religious toleration

The Double Helix: James Watson; scientific discovery in 1950s Cambridge, the thrill of the race to be first, controversy with Rosalind Franklin

The Caro books on Lyndon Johnson; insight into the ugly guts of politics, what it takes to win & the course of mid-20th century American history

The Mark Levison book on the Beatles is amazing - the only volume he has finished takes ~700 pages to get to the release of their first single. Arguably the most important cultural phenomenon of the 20th century.

Andrew Hodge's biography of Alan Turing

Now I have a large list of biographies to read! thanks a lot to everyone's recommendation I really appreciate it! :)

I really loved "My wicked, wicked ways" about the live of Errol Flynn.

If even half of it is true, he had enough adventures for a lot of movies. Also such a fun read.

Any biographical recommendations on Srinivasa Ramanujan?

I really enjoyed the Man who knew Infinity by Kanigel. Seemed to capture the flavor of Cambridge at the time. It's a movie too, but I haven't seen it.

Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman - Richard Feynman

My Life and Work - Henry Ford

A true engineer at heart. His comeback in life is very similar to that of Steve Jobs. Man was a true genius.

It doesnt fit into your categories - but comedian Billy Connolly's "Made In Scotland" autobiography is really good

Here’s another vote for Ben Franklin’s autobiography. It’s full of remarkably good advice and aged very well.

Elon Musk - Ashlee Vance.

Hands down one of the most inspiring and motivating biographies I've read.

Agreed - after reading this one I really stepped up my reading game (Audible helps a lot!) and it's helped my creativity and problem solving a lot :-)

The Last Lion - a multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill, by William Manchester.

Anything by Walter Isaacson.

Memoirs of Jacques Casanova

Autobiography of Benvenuto Cillini

Last train to Memphis - Peter Guralnick (Elvis)

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Benjamin Franklinis

The Biography of Prophet Muhammad: https://www.amazon.com/Ar-Raheeq-Al-Makhtum-Sealed-Nectar-Bi...

Learning the ups & downs of a human, who tried to change the world, and delivered the religion of Islam.

Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust

"Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War"


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