My personal policy is that I can only recommend to my readers books that I myself have read, enjoyed, and benefited from. It may well be that there are better books than these, so do not be reluctant to shop around. My own interests lean toward politics, history, philosophy, history of science, history of religion, psychology, personality theory, technology, science fiction, and detective novels. I do not read biographies, for example, of show business personalities or the autobiographies of corporate CEOs. If your desire is to become a movie actress or CEO of General Electric, then I can’t recommend anything to you. You will have to do some hunting on the Amazonor BarnesandNoble web sites yourself. Of course, any book store or web site has pretty much the same same books at pretty much the same price, so shop where you like.
Here is a short list of a few of my own favorite biographies.
Harry Truman - Truman’s own remarkable and highly readable Memoirs provide a guided tour of his own attitudes and personality. The two-volume set is out of print now, but used copies are widely available for less than five bucks. David McCullough’s masterful biography of Truman is a splendid work and initiated my own fascination with the man. I recommend it without reservation. Do not be surprised to discover that Truman was one of America’s most decisive, courageous, and unpopular presidents.
Abraham Lincoln - Of the hundreds of biographies of Lincoln, I have only read one, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is yet another superb book by an superb writer and very capable scholar. Any Machiavellian can learn from Lincoln and no reader can be disappointed with any of Ms Goodwin’s wonderful books.
Lyndon Johnson - Goodwin’s biography Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream is unique in that she worked for and with Johnson while he was in power and later when he was struggling unsuccessfully with his own never-written memoirs. Lyndon Johnson was the undisputed master of American politics for a time, yet he considered himself a failure at the end of his life. How can things have gone so wrong for a man who only wanted to do good and who won the presidency by a massive landslide? The life of Lyndon Johnson contains many lessons for the Machiavellian.
Bill Gates, founder and presiding genius of Microsoft, is a remarkable man who has led an amazing life. His work has touched us all. Even now, I am writing on a Microsoft Windows PC and reviewing my work on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The Modern Prince was written using Microsoft Word. There is a 97% chance that you are reading this using a Windows PC with Internet Explorer. My own reading on Bill Gates is out of date, and was focused mostly on the early days of the PC industry. There are two kinds of people: those who love Bill Gates and those who hate Bill Gates. You will learn something from a good biography of Bill Gates or a history of Microsoft. Young Bill (at lower left in the group photo) is shown here with the Micro-Soft staff in 1978, back when the company was in Albuquerque, NM. He has earned about $772,000 per hour since that time. He must be doing something right.
The early history of the PC industry is quite a story in itself. Anyone interested in business and marketing could benefit from reading Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date by Robert X. Cringely It is dated now, and there must be other histories available, but the writing is good and the book is still an easy, short, fascinating read.
Sam Houston was an extraordinary man. He was elected twice Congressman from Tennessee, twice Governor of Tennessee, Commanding General of the Army of Texas, Ambassador from the Cherokee Indians to the US Government (left), twice President of the independent Republic of Texas, twice Senator from the state of Texas, and twice governor of the State of Texas - an incomparable resume. He had no education and was completely self-taught. He abandoned white civilization and lived among the red Indians for years, though the Indians ultimately expelled him from their tribe out of disgust for his constant drunkenness. Houston’s strategy at the Battle of San Jacinto, in which his forces defeated the superior Army of Mexico in a 17 minute battle, is still studied at military academies. He criticized the treatment of the Indian by the white man, much to the disgust of most white men. He refused to recognize the decision of Texans to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy in its hopeless (as he predicted) Civil war. Paradoxically, he was a slave owner who was infuriated when one of his own slaves ran away to Mexico where slavery was forbidden. For his opposition to secession, he was expelled from the governor’s office by disgusted White Texans. He was a drunkard who gave up alcohol in middle age and was a more-or-less teetotaler thereafter. He was a terrible husband to both of his wives. His first wife divorced him in an age when divorce was a scandal. His second wife bore his children, lived in poverty, and lived most of her life alone while he was busy building his resume. Good biographies teach us that great men usually have great flaws. No matter what you think of Houston, his list of accomplishments is without equal in American history. Sam Houston by John Hoyt Williams is the only biography of Houston I’ve read, though there might be others that are better. I chose this one because it was the only biography of Houston that I could find in that particular bookstore at that particular time, and I was lucky to get a good one.
Cleopatra was a woman that Machiavelli would have admired if he had lived in a time that knew her history. Her enemy Octavian, who became the first emperor of Rome, wanted nothing more than to murder Cleopatra himself. Cheated of that opportunity by her suicide, he made sure that she was described as a political whore who screwed men for political advantage. That is the description that was known to Machiavelli. Fortunately, Cleopatra’s real history is now better known to us thanks to twentieth century scholarship. Cleopatra was a queen descended from the brother of Alexander the Great. She was an amateur philosopher and scholar, though if she wrote anything it is unknown to history. She bedded and gave sons to two of the three greatest men in the world: Caesar and Anthony. She did this not because she was a slut but because Caesar and Anthony were the only two men in the world who were, in her opinion, worthy of her. With Anthony, she ruled the eastern, Greek speaking half of the Roman Empire for two decades. She and Anthony intended to found a dynasty which would rule forever by dividing eastern Europe and western Asia among their children. She was the wealthiest person in the world at the time of her suicide. Her intelligence was surpassed, they say, only by her arrogance. She arranged for the murder of her brothers and sisters, but that was the custom of the time. I have only read Cleopatra by Michael Grant (1972), which may not include the most recent knowledge about her. He has produced a more recent book, which I have not read. It is Cleopatra - A Biography, and it surely includes updated material.
A few points to remember about biographies of these and other remarkable people.
- Great people often have enormous flaws. Perhaps this is true of you too. Do not expect Sunday School perfection in those whose lives you choose to study. Look for the personal characteristics that led the person to her success. Look for the personal characteristics that led to her failures. Look for the impact of Luck on her life.
- You cannot live Sam Houston’s life or Cleopatra’s life. You can only live your own. You can, however, learn from these men and women. How did they organize and accomplish their victories? How did they rebound from setbacks? How would they deal with your problems?
- If you don’t think that the lives of dead queens and presidents hold any value for you, then shop around for a good biography of someone who has achieved greatness in the field of your choice: business, education, art, writing, scholarship, union/labor, science, technology, volunteerism, religion, etc.
- If you don’t enjoy a book or don’t find any value in it, then drop it after the first hundred pages. You do not have brain cells or time to waste. Take it to a used bookstore and swap it for something you’ll like.
- Never take a copy of one of my books to a used bookstore for credit. Instead, keep them forever.
- If you read a remarkable biography, write a review of it and post it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other web sites so that other readers can be guided by your experience. Send it to me too, if you want, and I might post it on www.MidasJones.com .