Read was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. He is the third son of Sir Herbert Read, a poet, art critic and theorist of anarchism, and Margaret Ludwig Read, a professional musician, who was a convert to Catholicism.
When Read was eight, his family moved to North Yorkshire, where he was educated at Gilling Castle and Ampleforth College. His years at Ampleforth would later provide much of the material for the first part of his third novel Monk Dawson (1969). In 1959 he went to St John's College, Cambridge, where he read history. He received his B.A. in 1961 and M.A. in 1962. In 1963-64, he spent a year in West Berlin on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. There he made friends with two other beneficiaries of the Ford Foundation, Tom Stoppard and Derek Marlowe, and worked on his first novel Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx (1966). His stay in Berlin inspired his second novel The Junkers (1968, which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize) and confirmed the general sympathy towards the Germans that he felt on account of his mother's part-German ancestry. On returning to England, he took a job as sub-editor on The Times Literary Supplement and shared a flat in Pimlico with Stoppard and Marlowe. At 24 he briefly dated Anna Wintour, then 15. In 1967-68, he spent a year in New York - an experience he used in his fourth novel The Professor's Daughter (1971).
Read is a practising Catholic and Vice-President of the Catholic Writers' Guild of England and Wales. He is married to Emily Boothby (of the Boothby baronets). They have two sons and two daughters. Read lives in London. In 2005, he correctly predicted the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope.
Read is best known for his non-fiction book The Story of the Andes Survivors which documented the story of the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes mountains. Alive won the Thomas More Medal for the most distinguished contribution to Catholic literature in 1974 and has sold more than five million copies worldwide. The book was adapted into the 1993 film The Miracle of the Andes.
Read's first notable success was his novel Monk Dawson (1969), which won him a Hawthornden Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award, and was later made into the 1998 film of the same name by Tom Waller.
In 1978 he wrote the book The Train Robbers about the Great Train Robbery in England in 1963.
In 1988 he was awarded a James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his book, A Season in the West.
In 2003 his authorized biography of the actor Alec Guinness was published.
In 2009 he wrote The Death of a Pope (ISBN 9781586172954) set with the 2005 Papal conclave as a backdrop.
Read's novels are strongly influenced by his Catholic faith. His stories focus on the religious themes of sin and redemption. Read writes in a fairly traditional, linear style and he often uses plot elements from popular fiction, especially the thriller, like espionage, murder and conspiracy theories. Most of his main characters are fairly unsympathetic and some of them commit horrific deeds before they finally convert to God.
Almost all of Read's novels are set in Europe. Many of his books show a great interest and sympathy especially for Germany - quite unusual in British literature - and for Eastern European countries like Russia and Poland. In The Knights of the Cross, he explicitly satirizes the expectations and prejudices of the British readership towards the Germans.
Crowe, Marian E. (2007). Aiming at Heaven, Getting the Earth: The English Catholic Novel Today. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, pp. 285—350. (Chapters on Monk Dawson, Polonaise and On the Third Day) ISBN 0739116401; ISBN 073911641X.
Head, Dominic (2002). The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction. Cambridge University Press, pp. 28—29. (Discusses A Married Man) ISBN 0521660149; ISBN 0521669669.
Whitehouse, J.C. (2004). "Piers Paul Read, A Season in the West", in Reichardt, Mary R. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 517—605. ISBN 9780313322891; ISBN 0313322899.
Woodman, Thomas (1991). Faithful Fictions: The Catholic Novel in English Literature. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. (Briefly discusses all Read's novels up to The Free Frenchman) ISBN 0335096387.
Read, Piers Paul. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series, Vol. 38, pp. 353—355.