It was a strange year for my favorite genre … or at least, it was strange right up until the month when it wasn't. For most of 2018, the best biographies I encountered were mostly all about unconventional subjects, until I gradually started wondering where all the customary doorstops about the customary subjects were hiding. It turned out they were all hiding in the month of October, but even so, the bulk of the year was an unplanned and unexpected celebration of the plasticity of the genre – some of which is reflected in this list of the best biographies of the year:
10 Rush by Stephen Fried (Crown) – The first biography on my list this year is the kind of full-dress four-square tome that, in other years, would have filled out the entire list. Stephen Fried's life of “forgotten” Founding Father Benjamin Rush is extravagantly definitive, by far the best study of Rush that's ever been written or is ever likely to be written.
9 The New Negro by Jeffrey Stewart (Oxford University Press) – Stewart's huge biography of the writer, teacher, and grandfather of the Harlem Renaissance is likewise by a wide margin the best thing ever likely to be written about its subject, a sprawling study of both the man and his epoch, written with a very smooth and knowing low-key eloquence that fits its subject like a perfectly-tailored suit.
8 Bruce Lee by Matthew Polly (Simon and Schuster) – This big, intensely-detailed biography of the long-dead martial arts star of a handful of movies is so improbably engrossing that it serves as a near-perfect example of how off-kilter was 2018's crop of biographies. Matthew Polly not only full fleshes out the life and times of his subject but also, a much more difficult thing, manages to convey Lee's charisma.
7 Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian (Simon and Schuster) – The staggering amount of reporting that undergirds this book would be impressive enough, but Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian do so much more in this terrific biography of the golf world's foremost superstar – their passion and eloquence lift this book well out of the specialist realm.
6 Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin (Melville House) – The unconventional tilt of 2018's biographies for me is illustrated again in this passionate, prismatic biography of talentless fraud Cy Twombly; Rivkin makes Twombly's story so incredibly gripping and revelatory that I was never even briefly tempted to stop reading and Google images of the garbage Twombly managed to sell for actual money.
5 William Penn by Andrew Murphy (Oxford University Press) – Andrew Murphy's intricate and surprisingly personality-driven biography of Pennsylvania's founding weirdo William Penn is similar to many books on this year's list in that it's easily the new definitive work on its subject. Murphy ranges over the whole width of Penn's fascinating life in a confident and knowledgeable way no other biographer has ever approached.
4 Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World by Ramachandra Guha (Knopf) – Ramachandra Guha follows up his brilliant Gandhi Before India with this enormous work covering Gandhi's world-famous years, which chronicles pretty much every breath Gandhi took for the last 30 years of his life and manages to make it all completely fascinating.
3 Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano's Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World by Mike Stanton (Henry Holt) – Stanton's raw and sympathetic biography of unbeaten heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano should no more have appealed to me than would a big biography of a golf star or a martial artist, but 2018 had a peculiar magic to it, and this book's brilliance is evident on every page. Stanton has searched through every cranny of Marciano's life and managed to find a man who's consistently honorable even when surrounded by thugs, thieves, and boxing officials.
2 Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Viking) – Thomas Cromwell has been a polarizing figure since his first few years at King Henry's Court, and the polarization has followed him through the centuries; virtually every major life of the man has in part or in whole billed itself as revisionist. MacCulloch's book is no exception, but it's a stupendous scholarly investigation, vigorously readable on every page.
1 Arthur Ashe by Raymond Arsenault (Simon and Schuster) – The best biography of 2018 was this big book by Raymond Arsenault about the pathbreaking tennis superstar Arthur Ashe – his professional career, his personal life, and, most refreshingly, the broad sweep of his non-tennis life as an activist and public figure. Arsenault's prose subtly matches his subject's grace and intensity, easily making this book a landmark.