Best Historical Biographies: Complex People, Complex Times

By The Reading Room CLE

By The Reading Room CLE

Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons

Edward J. Renehan


If you’re like most people, you’ve never heard of Jay Gould. That’s too bad. His life and the times he lived in are fascinating. Adjusted for inflation, he was one of the top 10 richest men in American history – and he started from scratch. He was also a real life version of Lex Luthor. There is one scene in his life where he is literally running from the New York Police carrying a duffle bag with two million dollars in it (the police were “hired” by Cornelius Vanderbilt to break up Gould’s railroad business). He jumps on a small dinghy and paddles out to catch a ferry. He almost dies in the process. Once in New Jersey, he rents a hotel, and begins making covert trips to New York to bribe politicians and law enforcement so he can come back to the city. He was demonized in his day for good reason. Like most of the robber barons he never seemed to consider all the people hurt by his dealings–and there were a lot of them. But he was more complex than that. He was a master of finance when it was in its infancy. He wasn’t doing anything illegal or that other financiers of the day weren’t doing, but he was much smarter and better at it than everyone else. He amassed a massive fortune as a result. However, he didn’t just take. He built real businesses that helped transform American business and society. At least two of those businesses are still around today: Western Union and the Union Pacific Railroad. This book isn’t for everyone. But if you like history and you like biographies, I think you’ll really enjoy reading this.

The Generals: Patton, Macarthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II

Winston Groom

$15.99 $14.71

Wow! Just simply, wow! I had obviously heard of Patton, MacArthur, and Marshall; I had no idea how impressive and complicated each man was. Not to mention the amazing times they lived through – from horses to tanks to aircraft carriers. These men saw both the most amazing advances in human history and some of its worst atrocities. This book is not only well written, but it is full of fantastic storytelling.

A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age

William Manchester

$17.99 $16.55

A great and well written history of the dark ages, the Catholic Church, and Magellan. It’s safe to say that this was a horrible time in the history of Europe, but I found it fascinating how much of what we think of as exceptional religious dogma today was a common part of life in those days.

The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity

Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs

$20.00 $18.40

It examines the relationships between the presidents, from Truman and his relationship with Hoover all the way through Barack Obama. It also examines the complicated times in which all of them have lived. Truman, for example, gets a bad rep from most historians. Imagine being the first person in history with the power to destroy most of the world (the atomic and then hydrogen bomb). There was no historical precedent for such power or how to wield it. Or Nixon sabotaging Johnson’s peace attempts in Vietnam so that he could get elected president. Think how many young boys died needlessly because of his pursuit of power. And yet, Nixon was arguably one of the most brilliant intellects and tacticians in the history of American politics. So much so that Bill Clinton once said it was like losing a father when Nixon died. “Who will I go to now for the hard decisions?” he asked. What floors me about this book: The incredible amount of research that had to be done to write it. Imagine writing a comprehensive biography of 12 presidents. This book had to have taken years of concentrated effort and decades of dedication to history. Epic!