The best books on Rock Music, recommended by Peter Lawlor

Successful musicians don’t necessarily need formal training or 10,000 hours of practice under their belt; what they must have is a feel for music, an innate gift. But many of rock’s brightest burning stars were lost to drugs. Here, Peter Lawlor—who combined a career as a senior economic advisor with that of an award-winning songwriter, producer and record label executive—selects five of the best books on rock music, focusing on revelatory biographies that peer behind the veil.

The Best Biographies: the 2021 NBCC Shortlist, recommended by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, the author, critic and chair of the National Book Critics’ Circle biography committee, discusses their 2021 shortlist for the title of the best biography—including a revelatory new book about the life of Malcolm X, a group biography of artists in the 1960s, and a book built from a cache of letters written in Japan’s shogun era.

The Best of Biography: the 2020 NBCC Shortlist, recommended by Elizabeth Taylor

How do you find the perfect subject for a biography? “Pick a real bitch, or real bastard, and make sure they’re dead,” a famous biographer once told Elizabeth Taylor. The author, critic and chair of the National Book Critics’ Circle biography committee talks us through the books that made their 2020 shortlist.

The best books on Alexander the Great, recommended by Hugh Bowden

Alexander the Great never lost a battle and established an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. From the earliest times, historians have argued about the nature of his achievements and what his failings were, both as a man and as a political leader. Here, Hugh Bowden, professor of ancient history at King’s College London, chooses five books to help you understand the controversies, the man behind the legends, and why the legends have taken the forms they have.

The best books on Gandhi, recommended by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi’s peaceful resistance to British rule changed India and inspired freedom movements around the globe. But as well as being an inspiring leader, Gandhi was also a human being. Ramachandra Guha, author of a new two-part biography of Gandhi, introduces us to books that give a fuller picture of the man who came to be known as ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi.

The best books on Winston Churchill, recommended by Richard Toye

Winston Churchill’s role as a global statesman remains immensely controversial. For some he was the heroic champion of liberty, saviour of the free world; for others a callous imperialist with a doleful legacy. Here, historian Richard Toye chooses the best books to help you understand the man behind the myths and Churchill’s own role in making those myths.

The best books on Lucian Freud, recommended by William Feaver

Though ferociously private, Lucian Freud spoke about painting, the art world and his life and loves to his confidante and frequent collaborator, William Feaver, on the phone most weeks for many years. Feaver’s transcript forms the core of his definitive two-volume biography. He speaks with us about the best books for understanding the life and work of this renowned painter, and the very particular collaboration that led to this magisterial account of one of the finest painters of the last century.

The best books on Goya and the art of biography, recommended by Janis Tomlinson

The art of Francisco de Goya reflects the social and political chaos of Spain in his day, leaving later generations to read into his prolific work—by turns formal and bizarre, official and fantastic—many often contradictory interpretations. Art historian Janis Tomlinson recommends books that disentangle Goya from the retroactive projections of later admirers and situates him in his own time. We also consider what makes for a compelling biography.

The best books on Wagner, recommended by Michael Tanner

Richard Wagner’s works are as immense as they are influential: the four-part, 15-hour saga Der Ring des Nibelungen is the most analysed opera of all time. And yet, Wagner was arrogant and virulently anti-semitic. Can we separate the musical genius from the man? Opera critic Michael Tanner recommends the best books on Wagner.

The best books on Margaret Thatcher, recommended by Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer, journalist, historian and friend of Margaret Thatcher, recommends the best books to read to gain an understanding of the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister—and explains why she was the most influential British leader of the modern era.

The best books on Marx and Marxism, recommended by Terrell Carver

Few people have had their ideas reinvented as many times as the German intellectual and political activist, Karl Marx. Professor of political theory, Terrell Carver, takes us through the most influential books, in English, about Marx, Marxism and his friend, publicist and financial backer, Friedrich Engels.

The best books on Socrates, recommended by M M McCabe

The classical Greek philosopher is credited with laying the foundation of Western philosophy – without ever having written a word. Here, the eminent scholar M M McCabe recommends the best books to read to understand Socrates and engage with the eternal question: How best to live?

The best books on Hitler, recommended by Michael Burleigh

Hitler has a reputation as the incarnation of evil. But, as British historian Michael Burleigh points out in selecting the best books on the German dictator, Hitler was a bizarre and strangely empty character who never did a proper day’s work in his life, as well as a raving fantasist on to whom Germans were able to project their longings.

The best books on Handel, recommended by Andrew Gant

George Frideric Handel was born near Leipzig, became established in Italy, and ended life as England’s national treasure. Andrew Gant—author of a new book on Handel’s most famous composition—selects the five best texts for gaining an understanding of Handel’s life and work, and explains why opera divas were the premiership footballers of the Baroque period.

The best books on Samuel Johnson, recommended by Peter Lilley

Samuel Johnson, author of the 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, was not a hard-hearted Tory caricature, but a champion of the poor and enslaved, according to Margaret Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Lilley.

The best books on Andy Warhol, recommended by Blake Gopnik

Andy Warhol’s ubiquitous soup cans – and his willingness to play the naïf – eclipse the leading Pop Art figure’s depth, as Blake Gopnik reveals in his magisterial new biography. Here, Gopnik discusses five key books that offer crucial insight into Warhol the man.

The best books on Leonardo da Vinci, recommended by Martin Kemp

Every generation has its own Leonardo, and for many he remains a man of mystery. Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor in Art History at Oxford and the author of the recently published Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, helps us identify the non-mythical Leonardo. What might Leonardo be doing were he alive today, in our own digital age?

The best books on The Lives of Artists, recommended by Maria Loh

We live in an age obsessed with self-image. Technology has made the ‘selfie’ a ubiquitous form of social currency. Renaissance means may have been very different, but celebrity artists in Medici Florence dealt with many of the issues relating to identity and authorship that we grapple with today. Maria Loh, author of Still Lives: Death, Desire, and the Portrait of the Old Master, talks to Five Books about the curated self.

The best books on The Dutch Masters, recommended by Adam Eaker

The past may be a foreign country, but the world portrayed in the art of the Dutch Masters is not so very far from our own, says Adam Eaker of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For a society that struggles with materialism and consumption, there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from the 17th century Golden Age.

The Best Thomas Cromwell Books, recommended by Benedict King

The Mirror and the Light—the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s epic trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister and architect of the English Reformation—was published to great acclaim this month. Here, Five Books contributing editor Benedict King chooses five of the best books to help you get to grips with the real Thomas Cromwell and the political and religious environment in which he operated. You can watch Benedict talking about his Thomas Cromwell book choices here.