The Last Lion, Vol. I by William Manchester (Bantam, $20). This book opens with a wonderfully evocative portrait of Winston Churchill at the hour of his greatest crisis — May 1940 — then takes us back to the imperial "land of hope and glory" that shaped him. Manchester's books on JFK, MacArthur, and war in the Pacific are terrific, but the first volume of Churchill stands out for me as this biographer's finest hour.

The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster, $20). I read this book when it was first published in the middle of the Reagan years. I loved it then and love it now. With a passionate attention to human detail and a keen understanding of power, Isaacson and Thomas created an enduring portrait of a handful of World War II–era leaders who shaped the way we live now.

Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, $24). This first volume of Branch's three-part history of Martin Luther King Jr.'s impact opens unconventionally, with a portrait of Vernon Johns, King's forgotten predecessor. By the time the book closes, in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings in Birmingham, Ala., and the assassination of President Kennedy, we've gotten as close to King and the people around him as readers possibly can.

Some Sort of Epic Grandeur by Matthew J. Bruccoli (Univ. of South Carolina, $30). An engrossing, elegant biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald that — forgive the cliché — reads as compellingly as the best of Fitzgerald's own fiction. This is the finest literary life that I have ever encountered.

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie (Random House, $20). The human drama behind the fall of the Romanovs. An absorbing, sensitive account of the events that led to the rise of Soviet totalitarianism.

The Crisis Years by Michael R. Beschloss (out of print). The story of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the men who held the power to plunge the world into Armageddon. No subject could be more important, and Beschloss paints it vividly and memorably.

Former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is an executive at Random House and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion, a biography of Andrew Jackson. His 2012 best-seller Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, is now in paperback.