Below you'll find some of the group biographies recommended in Five Books interviews. In her interview with us, German-British historian Andrea Wulf credits the book The Lunar Men (2002), by British biographer Jenny Uglow, with marking "the beginning of the very interesting form of group biography, where you don’t have to begin with birth and end with death but you can just pick the best bits. I once heard her explain that a group biography is like an opera: some people are singing solo and others duets, while others appear only in the choir." We've also included some earlier works, as the ancients were also keen writers of biographies of multiple people, often as examples of how—or how not to—live.
“The book is very readable, and Norwich does a wonderful job of identifying, beyond national concerns, the kinds of challenges that these four figures faced in a 16th-century environment. Norwich was not a professional historian and he tells their stories from a personal perspective. There’s a risk to his book because it places the individual person at the center, but it’s a great introduction to a global understanding of 16th-century history. As you’re reading you notice, ‘Oh! this happened to Süleyman. Then the same thing happened to Francis I. How come?’ And you start thinking about the dynamics of the period…There are a couple of mistakes in the Ottoman sections. But it’s entertaining to read and I enjoyed it tremendously. He was a great writer. It shows that with the right mindset, you don’t have to know Ottoman Turkish to have a decent understanding of the Ottomans.” Read more...
The best books on Sultan Süleyman
“Hallie Rubenhold, the author of The Five, has researched the lives of these five women absolutely brilliantly. It’s a great piece of detective work into some very obscure sources…She really disproves what the ‘Ripperologist’ literature says about the victims and recovers these women’s lives with a good deal of sympathy. It’s a moving book. It’s humane, it’s scholarly, and it challenges, from a feminist position, a whole library of books on Jack the Ripper.” Read more...
The Best History Books: the 2020 Wolfson Prize shortlist
Translated from German, The Invention of Marxism is a “search for the origins of Marxism” which looks at the biographies of nine 19th-century individuals, including Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg as well as lesser-known figures. By doing so, it helps shed light on how Karl Marx—a penniless German philosopher who lived in exile in London—came to be what she calls the "(unintended) godfather of one of the most destructive social experiments in human history."
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🏆 Winner of the 2023 Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography
The foreigners who fought against Franco in Spain are much feted in literature and the popular imagination, those who helped India fight for its independence from the British Empire not so much. In this book, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha tells the story of seven of them (five Brits and two Americans), rescuing them from obscurity.
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“It’s a splendid book…It’s a group biography of writers and scientists in the late 18th and early 19th century—Herschel and Humphrey Davy on the science side, and the Romantic poets, mostly in England, and their engagement with the sublime and with science. Among Holmes’s qualities are his warmth, his extraordinary depth of knowledge and the fluency in his writing. It’s just a really enjoyable read.” Read more...
The best books on Science and Wonder
“What David has managed to do is combine the biographical and historical with the philosophical, without getting too technical. A lot of the philosophy of the Vienna Circle was quite hard core, but he doesn’t get bogged down in the details. This is a book that’s accessible to a general reader. He’s very good about making clear what the importance of the debates they were having was, what their limitations were, why they were or were not influential, as well as telling these stories which connect very strongly with the rise of Nazism, including the murder of the title of the book.” Read more...
The Best Philosophy Books of 2020
“The Equivalents is magnificent social history, a collective snapshot of an overlooked moment in American feminism; we meet these women crossing the bridge between first and second wave feminism. The institute provided them with the rooms of their own to which Virginia Woolf had aspired, but it turned out they needed more of E M Forster’s edict to ‘only connect.'” Read more...
The Best Biographies: the 2021 NBCC Shortlist
“Suetonius’s work is a collection of biographies of the first 12 Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar through to Domitian. And it really had a crucial sense of shaping our understanding of Imperial Rome as a place of vice and savagery and sexual depravity and violent, brutal, bawdy splendour…the shenanigans of Caligula, who indulged in incest, forced prostitution…or Nero, who actually went one better than Caligula by having his mother killed and is said to have burnt down Rome, although he probably didn’t.” Read more...
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“It’s a beautifully crafted group biography about the birth of the first American school of philosophy – pragmatism. Pragmatism is an idea about ideas. The gist is to assess theories based on their efficacy. Menand describes ideas as being like microchips or screwdrivers, tools that help us achieve results. That concept sprung from this generation. So, the four figures it tells this birth story through are Oliver Wendell Holmes, who became the legal embodiment of pragmatism, William James, who is the philosopher of pragmatism, Charles Pierce, who was James’s mentor, and John Dewey, who made James’s ideas more coherent and more part of popular conversation.” Read more...
The best books on The Roots of Liberalism
“With Vasari, we begin thinking that artistic biography might matter. As much as we may want to resist the notion that biography is central to understanding art, it seems as though it is just inevitable – the life of the artist is an inevitable element in considering the art itself, as Vasari realised early on.” Read more...
The best books on Andy Warhol
Art Historians, Critics & Curator
“Diogenes is very keen on making this a personal story. He’s both interested in telling us all sorts of odd and fantastical stories about the individual philosophers, but he’s also very interested in showing how each of these individual philosophers was influenced directly and personally by other predecessors. I think of it as a family tree of philosophies with Epicurus as the final branch of one of those trees.” Read more...
The best books on The Epicureans
The story of four mid-20th century philosophers based in Oxford—Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley. With many men who typically dominated academic philosophy away fighting World War II, they were able to make their own mark, arguing for a greater place for metaphysics in philosophical discourse.
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