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Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff is the author of "A Great Improvisation," "Cleopatra" and "The Revolutionary," a best-selling biography of Samuel Adams that’s now out in paperback. Below, she recommends six biographies that break all the rules.
'Stuart: A Life Backwards' by Alexander Masters (2005)
Experiments in biography tend to blow up in the biographer’s face. Once in a while they succeed beyond measure. This is the story of a homeless man who was panhandling when the author met him. The life is ladled out in reverse, almost by necessity: How exactly did Stuart wind up in the street? A perfect book, not only because its irrepressible subject weighs in from the start. Buy it here.
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'Our Man' by George Packer (2019)
How to resist a biographer so much on a tear that he asks the reader, "Do you mind if we hurry through the early years?" George Packer can’t get the voice of diplomat Richard Holbrooke out of his head. You’ll have the same trouble with Packer’s. An intimate, invigorating masterwork about the American century. Buy it here.
'Footsteps' by Richard Holmes (1985)
The book every biographer secretly wishes she had written. It begins as a starry-eyed search for Robert Louis Stevenson and opens into a wide-angle exploration of the human heart. Holmes appears on every velvety page and yet never obscures the view, surely one definition of charisma. Buy it here.
'How to Live' by Sarah Bakewell (2010)
That mid-show Chorus Line number in which the stage directions tangle themselves up with the melody? This is its exhilarating literary equivalent. Sarah Bakewell returns philosopher Michel de Montaigne from the 16th century "in one question and 20 attempts at an answer." That pesky question is: How to live? Buy it here.
'The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym' by Paula Byrne (2021)
Byrne reconstructs the life of novelist Barbara Pym as a mosaic, composed of shimmering shards. They make for compulsive reading, as you might expect from chapters bearing arch titles like "Miss Pym Feels Her Age" or "In which Fräulein Pym falls for a Handsome Nazi." Buy it here.
'Flaubert’s Parrot' by Julian Barnes (1984)
A brilliant ramble around the difficulty of capturing a life on the page — and the lunacy of those who attempt it. Come for the shadows of Flaubert. Stay for the smackdown of art and life (and the stuffed parrots). Biography, Barnes reminds us, resembles a net: "a collection of holes tied together with string." Buy it here.
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