There’s an age-old saying which goes, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” In effect, it’s a reminder to always be empathetic and understand that an individual’s experiences and adversities irrefutably shape who they become. One of the easiest ways to do this is by reading a memoir or biography. Through these unflinching personal accounts, you can deep-dive into another person’s life and, momentarily, take a break from your own.
Of course, since no two lives are the same, no two memoirs are. There are some that have a fictional flair and some that are all fact; some that profile celebrities and some that focus on the everyman. There are a few that are written as first-person recounts (known as autobiographies and memoirs) and a few that are written by biographers or historians (biographies).
So, exactly which books—and whose lives—are worth reading about? It’s truly impossible to list them all, but here are four powerful reads to get you started.
1. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
This isn’t the first book we’ve seen about Elon Musk and it probably won’t be the last. But it’s the first one that Musk cooperated with—he spent 30 hours with the author—so it’s one of the most detailed (and personal) to date. Penned by veteran technology journalist Ashlee Vance, the bestselling title traces the life of the South African-born entrepreneur, inventor and engineer, from his rough upbringing to his rise as a global business magnate. It delves into his groundbreaking companies—Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity—and tracks the startling advances the 48-year-old has made regarding electric cars, space exploration and solar energy.
Pros: Its fascinating subject matter.
Cons: It was published in 2015, so it may be a little out of date given how quickly the tech world moves.
2. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike
One for the sneakerheads, this candid memoir was written by Nike founder and board chairman Phil Knight and gives the inside scoop on the world’s most valuable apparel brand. Knight offers a refreshingly honest account of the company’s beginnings as a disruptive start-up to its evolution into an iconic, billion-dollar brand. The story undulates, shifting between epic fails and major triumphs, all the while Knight remains entirely unfiltered and humble. This beautifully crafted book is perfect for Nike fans or people in business.
Pros: It comes straight from the founder’s mouth and has great entrepreneurship lessons.
Cons: Take all autobiographies with a grain of salt, they invariably include a little self-promotion.
3. The Accidental President
This biography is as just as unexpected as Harry S. Truman’s presidentship. Written by prolific American author and journalist A. J. Baime, it presents a meticulously researched yet warmly human portrait of the unlikely leader who was thrust into the presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unexpected death. It covers Truman’s first four months in office when he had to take on Germany, Japan, Stalin and the atomic bomb, no less. No other president had ever faced this much adversity in such a short amount of time, and the book does this nail-biting period justice.
Pros: It’s both informative and entertaining.
Cons: At $139 a pop, it’s not exactly cheap.
As one of the country’s most compelling generals and presidents, Ulysses S. Grant has long been fodder for pageturners. But more often than not, his biographers have got it wrong. All too often Grant is bluntly caricatured as an inept businessman and a drunk. But in his thoroughly researched tom, Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow offers a nuanced and masterful portrait of this complex human. Focusing specifically on Grant’s work against the Ku Klux Klan, as well as his attitudes on anti-Semitism, political corruption and alcoholism, Chernow gives the reader an understanding of Grant at the deepest level.
Pros: It’s thoroughly researched and informative.
Cons: Be prepared. At 959 pages, this is quite the tome.