Best Books of 2017 – Biography!
I noticed three rough minor trends in American biographies in 2017, and all three were predictable in their own ways, and all three are represented on this year-end list. The first two trends were entirely understandable, since 2017 was the anniversary of both the Russian Revolutions and the kick-off of the Protestant Reformation. The third trend was perhaps more subtle and certainly more heartbreaking: a raft of biographies of US presidents, aimed at a reading public in large part thirsty for any President but the one they currently have. It was also of course a year for big biographies, but there’s nothing wrong with that! Long or short, trendy or not, here are the best of the whole bunch:
10 Rising Star by David Garrow (Morrow) – We start not only with a doorstop but with quite possibly the most painful doorstop the year had to offer: this enormous, tough-but-sympathetic book about the pre-White House life of Barack Obama. David Garrow makes those years enthralling reading in their own right, and they made me hope to see someday an equally-good (and equally long!) volume about the Obama White House years.
9 Grant by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press) & Richard Nixon by John Farrell (Doubleday) – There was also a place in the year’s publishing, of course, for bad US Presidents. Ron Chernow’s latest doorstop of a book is about one such bad President, Ulysses Grant, and Chernow searches through the man’s life and times with an infectious vigor that, for me, entirely compensated for the non-stop hagiographies of his Washington biography. And John Farrell’s densely-researched new life of the (current) title-holder for Worst President, Richard Nixon, is likewise both tough and involving, a high-water mark in the study of its loathsome subject.
8 President McKinley by Robert Merry (Simon & Schuster) – One of the biggest and most pleasing surprises of the biography year was this terrific, deeply intelligent re-assessment of the nation’s 25th president, a smart, forbidding, oddly shy politician whose tenure was cut short by an assassin. This book had an incredibly tough act to follow: Margaret Leech’s 1960 In the Days of McKinley is a masterpiece of presidential biography, and incredibly, Robert Merry’s book holds its own in the comparison. It restores McKinley to as much prominences as he’s ever going to have.
7 Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper (Random House) – I read a dozen books on Luther and his theology in 2017, and a dozen further books on the Protestant Reformation, and Lyndal Roper’s big biography of the man stands out from all that, once again (as in the case of Merry’s McKinley) approaching level of its great predecessor, Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. Roper does an excellent job of following the complex evolution of Luther’s thinking, and she’s equally good at fleshing out the man behind the flame-throwing theological pronouncements.
6 Charlton Heston by Marc Eliot (Dey Street Books) – The year’s biggest curve-ball for me was this big, totally engrossing biography by Marc Eliot of the iconic Hollywood actor Charlton Heston. Eliot ferrets out every little-known anecdote, every friend and enemy still alive to tell tales, every tiny detail from Heston’s life and career, and he matches all of that invaluable research with an invariably insightful bigger-picture observations about the cinematic world Heston did so much to shape.
5 Becoming Leonardo by Mike Lankford (Melville House) – The year had a bounty of biographies on Leonardo Da Vinci – young Leonardo, political Leonardo, literary Leonardo, Leonardo-in-the-round, etc. And some of those books were good, but only one was brilliant, this beautifully-written book on the phenomenon of Leonardo by Mike Lankford. The unconventional tone and pacing Lankford chooses to use knock away almost all of the intense predictability of Leonardo biographies and leave a catalogue of very immediate-feeling wonders. This is the best Leonardo biography in decades.
4 William the Conqueror by David Bates (Yale University Press) – Here’s another example of something we’ve seen often on this list this year: an excellent new biography of somebody who’s not in any way lacked for biographies. Bates’ book, an entry in the Yale English Monarchs series, uses a clear, sweeping prose-line to bring together more wide-ranging research on William’s life and contentious times than anybody else has done, proving that even the most frequently-told life can still be fascinating in the right hands.
3 Rumi’s Secret by Brad Gooch (Harper Collins) – This wonderfully eloquent literary biography of the oft-quoted 13th century Sufi poet read like nothing else I encountered in 2017. Gooch is a practiced biographer and an excellent storyteller, and his book is clearly a bit impatient with the feel-good reductions and simplifications that have attended this figure for centuries. The result is an intensely intriguing combination of appreciation and record-straightening.
2 Lenin by Victor Sebestyen (Pantheon) – The 2017 anniversary of the Russian Revolutions brought forth a bookcase full of biographies, and this hefty study by Victor Sebestyan was the best of them all, using crystal-sharp prose and a vast amount of research to craft a portrait of Lenin that keeps its focus on what a monster he was while at the same time providing refreshing nuance into his life and beliefs. His Lenin ends up being grubbily charismatic at the same time that he’s repellant – no mean feat of writing.
1 Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf) – This, the best biography of 2017, likewise tracks over very familiar ground and makes it all seem thrillingly new. Redfield maintains a strong concentration throughout on the ravages of Lowell’s chronic moods of crippling depression, and she connects it with stunning skill to his art in ways that made the whole book feel like one long revelation. Redfield’s sensitivity to human nature fills this biography with compelling portraits of the people in Lowell’s life – and of Lowell himself, here feeling thoroughly realized.