Stephen Floyd is an avid reader, pilot, investment banker, and farmer who earned a Chemical Engineering degree from Brown University. He's read hundreds of biographies since he started tracking in 2013 and has catalogued them on his blogs Best Presidential Bios and The Best Biographies, which have reached millions of people.
Who are you, and what do you do?
I'm a native Texan who ventured to New England for college and never quite made it back. Instead I took a two-decade detour to NYC where I began an investment banking career, got married, had kids and earned a pilot's license. But I did eventually convince my wife to move as far south as Virginia. My professional career is focused on advising corporate clients on mergers, acquisitions and divestitures.
What got you interested in reading the biographies of the president & other figures, and blogging about them?
One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to travel globally. I have clients in several dozen countries around the world and travel frequently. After a few years on long international flights I realized that I needed to find a way to use that time productively. So I read everything by Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy and a few other authors. Some point later I decided to combine my fascination with American history with my love of great writing and I ended up with the idea of reading the one best biography of each president... except I couldn't find a reliable way of determining which book was the best for each president. So I decided to read lots of biographies of each president and figure it out for myself. My blog started as a way for me to stay organized and keep notes on my reaction to everything I read. After a year or so it became obvious that I had a sizable audience following my journey.
How do you do your reading? Physical books, ebooks? Do you take notes?
I tend to read every other day – about 80 or 90 pages at a time. When I have lots of free time I'll read more, of course, but I've got enough competing demands for my time that it's rare I have more than a two-hour stretch of time. I strongly prefer to read physical books, even when I'm traveling with a hardback that runs 900 pages. Old habits die hard. And I do take notes on a laptop – mostly recording memorable quotes, great one-liners, interesting facts I wasn't aware of... The real question is just what am I going to do with 2,000+ pages of notes???
Some figures have a lot written about them (thousands, or tens of thousands, on Napoleon). How do you decide which to read?
I started by reading several biographies of every president. After that I decided to begin reading about the most compelling people I encountered while reading about the presidents (Alexander Hamilton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, etc.) More recently, though, I've broadened my reading to include anyone has attracted the attention of a great biographer.
How do you make time for so much reading?
When I'm trapped on an airplane for 8 or 9 hours it's easy to find the time. But even when I'm not traveling, I tend to get up early – very early – and there aren't many competing demands on my time before 5am :)
You've read hundreds of biographies. What are some striking similarities or differences you've noticed between subjects?
The most unexpected thing I've noticed after reading multiple biographies of each of the presidents is how different a single biographical subject can appear through different lenses. If you read three or four books on Thomas Jefferson, for example, it's quite possible you will come away feeling as though you read about three or four different people. A biographer's writing style, political persuasion, underlying biases, and points of emphasis can all shade how someone comes across in a biography. But the common theme I've observed across all biographical subjects is that great writing makes up for a dull biographical subject. And dull writing can easily obscure an otherwise fascinating life story.
In addition to your voracious reading, you're an investment banker. What got you interested in investment banking?
A lifelong love of finance – how businesses operate, how they are funded and what influences whether or not they are ultimately successful – and a fascination with the strategic overlay of acquiring or divesting businesses as a way of upgrading a business portfolio, accelerating growth or expanding geographically.
In addition to both of those things, you own a farm. What spurred your interest in farming, and what's it like managing one?
Several years ago I was afforded the opportunity to buy some property in the Blue Ridge Mountains – mostly wooded, but with a spring-fed lake and a reasonable amount of open space. One of my neighbors – who designs flower arrangements for weddings – suggested that my wife and I use some of that space to grow wedding flowers. We quickly settled on dahlias, which don't travel long distances well (so we're not competing with large-scale greenhouses in Ecuador or Mexico) and come in an astonishing array of sizes, colors and shapes. We began by experimenting with a few types of dahlias and a few-dozen plants in total. We now grow more than 125 different varieties – a few thousand plants in total. And we do all the work ourselves; our kids are smart enough not to show up at the farm when things need to be tilled, planted, weeded, mulched, watered, pruned or picked.
How do you relax or take a break?
Reading and flower farming are two incredibly complementary forms of therapy for me. When I no longer find them relaxing I suspect I'm in trouble.
A quick look at the complete list of biographies you read shows around 387 books (as of March 17, 2022). If you had to choose just 5 – presidential or otherwise – which would you recommend?
Favorite presidential biography — Ron Chernow's biography of George Washington
Favorite non-presidential biography — Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton
Favorite biographical series of all time — Robert Caro's series on LBJ (the last volume is currently being written)
Two other notable biographies — Candice Millard's book on Teddy Roosevelt and Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci