How can you separate the promising from the pulp? Amazon has come to the rescue.
"A lot of people were saying, 'I love to read biographies' and it was going to be Presidents' Day, and we thought of all the presidential biographies, so we said let's do biographies," said Sara Nelson, Amazon's Editorial Director.
The Amazon staff compiled a list of about 200 books and winnowed it down to the final 100. Among their choices: Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods," Mary Karr's "The Liar's Club," Elie Wiesel's "Night," "The Andy Warhol Diaries" and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago."
Naturally, the staff here at CNN had some worthy books that didn't make Amazon's list. Here are 10 more suggestions, in alphabetical order by author:
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Jean-Dominique Bauby
The writing of Bauby's slim 1997 memoir is a story in itself. The author, a French magazine editor, suffered a stroke that left him with "locked-in syndrome" -- physically paralyzed but mentally present. He wrote the book by blinking his left eyelid. In it, he recalls the events of his life and demonstrates that even though the body is immobilized the mind can still wander freely. Bauby's book was made into a 2007 movie.
"All Over But the Shoutin'," Rick Bragg
Bragg, a former New York Times reporter, describes his life growing up poor in northern Alabama and his struggle to escape the cycle of poverty that claimed many of his neighbors. "Bragg is showing us a place we have not seen before, not quite like this," wrote Anthony Walton in The New York Times Book Review
in a 1997 review.
"The Long Season," Jim Brosnan
Amazon has Jim Bouton's hilarious and revelatory "Ball Four" on its list, but before Bouton's diary there was Brosnan's 1960 chronicle, detailing his pitching life in a season with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. It was "the first honest portrayal of the life of a baseball player," wrote Mark Armour for the Society of American Baseball Research
, and remains a crackling good read.
"The Night of the Gun," David Carr
Before Carr, who died last week at age 58
, was a well-respected media reporter for The New York Times he was a drug addict -- the kind of irresponsible dope hound who would leave his children in a car on a freezing Minnesota night while he went to score. "The Night of the Gun," from 2008, tells how he hit rock bottom and worked his way back up -- while willing to investigate his life with the same kind of unsentimental focus he brought to his columns.
"The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace," Jeff Hobbs
Hobbs' book, released late last year, describes the life of Robert Peace, an African-American from Newark, New Jersey, who became a standout student at Yale, came back to his hometown to teach and then was shot to death at age 30. Hobbs, his college roommate, is determined to show that "Rob Peace was not a cliche," as he told NPR
. The book has received outstanding reviews.
"How to Be a Woman," Caitlin Moran
Moran, a columnist for the Times of London, published this half-memoir, half-manifesto in 2011. She's a staunch feminist and bluntly casts a wide net: "Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it?" she asks. She takes on the idea of womanhood versus the reality and makes you laugh in the process. "The joy of this book is just that: the joy," wrote Miranda Sawyer in The Guardian
"John Lennon: The Life," Philip Norman
There are plenty of terrific Beatles biographies -- just a couple years ago, Mark Lewisohn published "Tune In,"
the first volume of his projected three-volume work on the Fabs -- but few good ones about the band members as individuals. Norman, who wrote the Beatles bio "Shout!" in 1981, published his 800-page biography of Lennon in 2008 and managed to capture a well-rounded portrait of a complex man.
"Twelve Years a Slave," Solomon Northup
The basis for the Oscar-winning best picture still packs a wallop more than 150 years after it was first published. Northup, a free man living in upstate New York, was kidnapped on a trip to Washington, sold into slavery and spent the next 12 years at a Louisiana plantation. "If I have failed in anything," Northup wrote, "it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture." Essential.
"You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again," Julia Phillips
Phillips was a rarity in early-'70s Hollywood: a woman producer. She and her then-husband Michael had a hand in three major films -- the Oscar-winning "The Sting," "Taxi Driver" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" -- but, thanks to a drug addiction, she had a precipitous fall. "You'll Never Eat Lunch," which came out in 1991, can be hard to read but offers a distinctive take from an even more distinctive personality.
"Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self," Claire Tomalin
And then there's Pepys, whose detailed diary of 17th-century London life has become a model for both detail (want to know how surgery was conducted in the 1650s? Really?) and candor. Tomalin's work provides an overview of Pepys' life and context on why it, and his diaries, remain significant.