The best of biography
One man's journey through the American presidents
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In 2012, an investment banker and avid history reader named Stephen Floyd began making his way through the American presidents, one biography at a time. It was a way to fill time while commuting to Hong Kong on twelve-hour flights. “I got tired of drinking free wine and watching cheap movies,” he says. Starting with George Washington, he read 240 titles (123,000 pages) in six years or, to be precise, 2,243 days, bringing him up to Obama. (Floyd is not alone in this pursuit: as the Washington Post reports, reading biographies of all the presidents is a thing).
Along the way, Floyd blogged about the books he read at bestpresidentialbios.com where fellow enthusiasts commented on his reviews, sometimes challenged his opinions, and suggested additional biographies to read. His blog posts improved to the point where he became a reliable and knowledgeable reviewer, as good as most professionals. When Stephen Floyd says David McCullough’s much-celebrated biography of John Adams is the second-best biography of John Adams, you need to listen. He can back it up.
Floyd, who continues to review biographies he overlooked in his initial journey, as well as new releases, has covered a dozen volumes on George Washington alone, including all four volumes and 1,800 pages of James Flexner. He rates Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life the best of the bunch, by far. Chernow is the only biography of the 270-some Floyd has reviewed to earn a five-star rating. Only sixteen authors have 4.5 stars or better. (In case you’re wondering, Floyd gave Hoover one of the worst reviews it got anywhere, but still placed it among the dozen or so biographies with 4.25 stars, and seeing as it’s keeping company with Edmund Morris’s magnificent Theodore Roosevelt series, I won’t complain.)
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Of course, one can quibble with Floyd’s judgments, as with those of any reviewer. He has 4.5 stars for Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, notwithstanding the padding and the plagiarism (it has been taken out of print by its publisher). He found a lot more to like in Peggy Noonan’s Reagan biography than I did. Also in H. Wayne Morgan’s McKinley, which is nowhere near as fine as Margaret Leech’s lower-rated effort. But Floyd knows what he likes and why.
Going back to the Adams biographies, he celebrates Ferling for his judicious details and careful opinions. “The author’s descriptive capability is on consistent display and he sets the context in most scenes magnificently.” He appreciates that Ferling finds Adams’ relationship with his wife, Abigail, more complicated than the perfect romance portrayed in other biographies.
Floyd is less charmed by McCullough’s “enormously sympathetic” biography of Adams. It is “incontrovertibly excellent,” and firmly rooted in the abundant Adams source material, but the author’s tendency to end every scene with a remark favorable to the subject irks after a while. McCullough comes across as “a mother doting on a favorite child.”
It’s a fair point, and Ferling gets the higher mark.
Bestpresidentialbios.com has all of Floyd’s reviews, and summaries of his reviews broken down by president. It’s a great resource and, as mentioned, he’s still adding to it.
Meanwhile, he has embarked on a new project, thebestbiographies.com, which moves beyond presidents to a full range of subjects including actors, royals, scientists, composers, activists, and business tycoons. Scott Eyman’s Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise gets four stars, as does Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.
Tangent: With this new approach, Floyd is encroaching on the space of one Daniel S. Burt, who twenty years ago published a unique reference called The Biography Book. It’s a huge thing, oversized, and 640 pages. Burt used data from a Connecticut library system to determine the 500 most notable people in history (as far as readers in Connecticut are concerned). His subjects had to be dead and have at least thirty books dedicated to them. Burt then summarized and ranked biographical sources for each subject, for a total of 10,000 entries. So, if you want an informed opinion on the best biography of Catherine the Great or Stalin or Schubert, Burt’s your man.
He’s incredibly thorough. On Schubert, for interest, he begins with a short biographical sketch: the composer studied with Salieri and taught the children of a Hungarian nobleman and is famous for his symphonies, his piano pieces, string quartets, and 600-odd lieder, songs for solo voice. Burt then provides a list of Schubert autobiographical writing and collections of letters; recommended biographies, with Maurice Brown’s Schubert: A Critical Biography earning highest marks; other biographical studies including Charles Osborne’s excellent Schubert and His Vienna; biographical novels, recommended juvenile biographies; biographical films and theatrical adaptations; and other sources. Each book gets a paragraph, like this:
Marek, George. Schubert. New York. Viking, 1986, 254 p. Marek critically reviews the existing biographical treatments of Schubert’s life and career before offering a contrary view by underscoring aspects of the composer’s life, such as his sexuality, his criminal record, and his relationship with Beethoven. The book presupposes prior knowledge of the composer’s life and work.
It’s an incredibly useful volume but unfortunately hasn’t been updated since 2001, and likely won’t be. It should be a website rather than a book, and it should have a staff of five readers to expand its coverage beyond mostly American and European subjects and bring them all up to date. I suppose that’s too much to ask for.
Back to Floyd. He is representative of a rising force in the book world, the amateur enthusiast or, in contemporary parlance, the book influencer. As newspapers and magazines cut back on coverage of books, the likes of Floyd are filling the gap. They don’t always write as well as professional critics, and almost all of them could use an editor, but they compensate for these shortcomings with genuine passion for their subjects and a determination to reach a community of like-minded readers.
Almost any genre of book you can cite has a clutch of amateur enthusiasts who are alert to the latest releases and brimming with opinions as to what is worth reading and what deserves a pass. I’m not sure any have the power to make or break a book (yet), but they all serve an important role in the publishing ecosystem, and book publicists are devoting increasing shares of their time to their sites (whether conventional blogs, newsletters, Instagram feeds, or YouTube channels).
The publicist’s job has been complicated immensely by the rise of the influencer. Few of them are generalists. They don’t simply do books: they do serial murderers, or postcyberpunk novels, or erotic historical romance, or cashier memoirs, or presidential biography. That means that almost every book a publisher releases will appeal to a different set of influencers, which requires a lot of research, and a lot of outreach on the part of the publicists. But it’s worth the trouble. Some influencers have considerable followings, and those followings tend to be seriously engaged in the subject matter, far more so than a general newspaper audience would be.
In closing, here are the only three of the 270 presidential biographies reviewed by Stephen Floyd (above, at the former home of James Madison) to receive 4.75 stars or better, with links to their reviews.
The Passage of Power (Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol IV) (2012). REVIEW (4¾ stars)
Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)
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Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.
Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)
Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different
Art Canada Institute: reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion
Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world
Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations
Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice
John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations
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