50 Essential Memoirs

Memoirs tell a story from someone’s life, but the best ones are able to transcend just being about one person’s experience to relate something that not only entertains, but deeply resonates with readers. Sometimes these stories are hilarious, heartbreaking, horrifying, or a combination of all three. Check out our list of essentials to make your memoir collection complete.

Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen
First published in 1937, Karen Blixen’s account of her 17 years living on a plantation in Kenya is an essential volume for any memoir collection. The book, written under Blixen’s pen name, Isak Dinesen, explores her strange and wonderful surroundings—the African people; European adventurers; and lions, rhinos, and zebras for neighbors—in exquisitely lyrical prose.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers
A college senior loses both of his parents to cancer in a span of only five weeks and is left to raise his 8-year-old brother on his own. Dave Eggers manages to weave a tale that is both hilarious and touching.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance
J.D. Vance represents a break in the cycle of poverty and desperation, which grips much of the Rust Belt where he was raised. His is a timely tale about the struggle of white working-class Americans, offering insights into some of the political developments of 2016.

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
Published three years after the author’s death, A Moveable Feast candidly chronicles Ernest Hemingway’s experience as a young writer in 1920s Paris. Perhaps some of the most intriguing pieces of this beloved work are Hemingway’s insights on fellow writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer
The May 1996 disaster on Mount Everest took the lives of five climbers and greatly impacted the lives of everyone on the fateful expedition—journalist Jon Krakauer was one of the mountaineers to make it out alive. His account of the events were not without controversy, but the personal narrative stands on its own as a vividly told, haunting tale.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
Passionate about access to education for everyone, Malala Yousafzai was a teenager living in Pakistan and blogging about life under the Taliban when the Islamic fundamentalist group targeted her and shot her in the head as she was returning from school in October 2012. Written less than a year after surviving the attack, her story of courage and advocacy is an inspiration to all.

Black Boy, by Richard Wright
Richard Wright’s riveting memoir details his experience growing up as an African-American in the Jim Crow South surrounded by poverty, fear, abuse, and intense racism. As a child, Wright is angry and resentful toward the white people who either pity or hate him and the black people who resent his rejection of the status quo. Black Boy is a difficult but important read about injustice and the power of rising above to advocate for change.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel’s darkly comic Fun Home, told with the help of the author’s gothic artwork, is perfectly suited for the graphic novel format. The book is a coming-of-age story about a young woman whose father is a closeted gay man who works as a high school English teacher and a funeral home director. Bechdel ultimately comes out as a lesbian herself in the tale, which is at once both heartbreaking and funny.

I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, by Nora Ephron
The late Nora Ephron’s collection of essays on female aging is endlessly relatable and uproariously hilarious. The When Harry Met Sally writer’s signature dry wit is unmistakeable in her takes on women’s necks—they’re incapable of lying about our age—the chaotic abyss of our purses, and the woes of reading glasses, among others.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou knew the real meaning of the word persistence—it’s evident in her work as a civil rights activist, a poet, and an educator. And in her memoir, readers get a glimpse into Angelou’s early life and the origins of her strength of character in the face of racism and intense personal trauma.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby
In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was just 44 years old when he had a rare type of stroke and lapsed into a coma. When he awoke, the French Elle editor and father of two was paralyzed except for his left eyelid—his brain remained fully functional. A victim of locked-in syndrome, Bauby soon began to communicate by blinking his eye—he eventually dictated this remarkable memoir one letter at a time. He died just two days after the French publication, but the incredible book stands as a testament to his life.

My Life in France, by Julia Child
“To think it has taken me 40 years to find my true passion (cat and husband excepted),” Julia Child once wrote to her sister-in-law. When she arrived in France in 1948, she could neither speak French nor cook, but this famed chef with a personality as big as her 6-foot-2 frame was determined to master both in this charming story of her culinary beginnings.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling
Actress and writer Mindy Kaling is amazingly smart, creative, and funny, and her memoir is undeniably all three. The book covers everything in her life from growing up as a chubby first-generation Indian-American, to impersonating Ben Affleck in her off-Broadway play, to landing her gig on The Office—told with her self-deprecating wit and conversational-quirky-BFF voice.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain first fell in love with food when he had his first oyster during a family trip to France as a child. And the famed chef and TV personality reveals himself to be quite a bit like that oceanic delicacy—rough on the outside, raw and unexpected on the inside. His memoir of the wild tales of his life working in restaurant kitchens is a funny, provocative, and frank must-read.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
Regardless of whether Stephen King’s brand of horror is your cup of tea, his book on the craft of writing and his own experiences—from his stacks of rejection letters he had collected by the age of 14 to his struggles with his first published book, Carrie, to his fight for life after being hit by a car in 1999—is a necessary volume for every writer. 

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World, by Rita Golden Gelman
When Rita Golden Gelman finds herself at 48 facing a divorce from her husband of 20 years, she opts to leave behind her lavish Los Angeles lifestyle, embarking on a nomadic existence that leads her from a Zapotec village in Mexico, to the Galapagos Islands, to a palace in Indonesia. Gelman’s tale is an inspiring one of starting over and learning what it really means to live at large in the world.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, by Steve Martin
By 1978, comedian Steve Martin was a super-star in the world of stand-up, and in 1981, he retired from it completely. His funny and touching memoir details—in his own words—“why I did stand-up and why I walked away.” It also candidly recounts his strained relationship with his father, his earliest jobs working at Disneyland, the honing of his craft, his stint on Saturday Night Live, and the resulting isolation and loneliness of his success.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama
Barack Obama grew up as the son of a white American mother and a black African father, who left when Obama was just 2 years old. The story opens with him just having learned his father was killed in a car accident, which inspires a retracing of Obama’s roots and his struggles to reconcile his divided inheritance as he confronts issues of racism and identity in this compelling story.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), by Jenny Lawson
Jenny Lawson is the writer behind popular blog The Bloggess and author of two bestselling memoirs—one of which, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, details her eccentric upbringing by a taxidermist father with a propensity for bringing home roadkill. This is an amazingly hilarious, uplifting, and bizarre read for anyone who needs the reminder that fitting in is overrated.

Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs
This tell-all, stranger-than-fiction tale details Augusten Burrough’s upbringing by the family of his mother’s highly unconventional therapist. Hilarious, disturbing, and a page-turner, the controversial book drew accusations of betrayal (and exaggeration) from members of the adopted family.

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
George Orwell’s classic is more modern than its 1933 publication would indicate. One of the most readable classics, it consists of two parts: A young Orwell slaves for subsistence wages in the bowels of a Paris restaurant, and then tramps around London among the most destitute.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed’s chronicle put her on the literary map and drew legions of admirers for her pluck and courage. Following the death of her mother, the author hikes the PCT from Southern California to Oregon, grieving and working through her demons.

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, by Steven Callahan
Marine architect Steven Callahan will never know for sure what sank his sailboat off the Canary Islands in 1981. Likely few possess the skills, resourcefulness and endurance that allowed him to survive a 76-day drift across the Atlantic.

Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp
Caroline Knapp started drinking at 14 and spent the next 20 years as an alcoholic. This is the story of the path that led her to recovery. While it’s important to hear about the solution in addiction stories, knowing the problem is just as imperative. Knapp makes it clear in this lucid account that she knows where she came from, she knows where untreated addiction leads, and, with the help of her 12-step program, she knows where her sobriety can take her.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson
Bestselling author Bill Bryson is one of the funniest travel writers around. His book, A Walk in the Woods is a laugh-out-loud account of his attempt to tackle all 2,100 miles Appalachian Trail with a friend who’s unprepared for the task.

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
After a difficult divorce and bout of depression, Elizabeth Gilbert embarks on a journey of soul-searching and self-discovery by traveling to three countries—Italy, India, and Indonesia. She seeks pleasure, spirituality, and balance and finds a beautiful combination of all three and more in this inspirational read.

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
At 36 years old, just as Paul Kalanithi is about to complete his training as a neurosurgeon, he suddenly finds himself in the patient role, diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He is facing death just as he and his wife are bringing a little girl into the world and is forced to examine a question that has “possessed” him throughout his medical training: “[W]hat, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life”? This posthumously published memoir is both devastating and inspiring—a must-read for everyone.

Love Warrior, by Glennon Doyle Melton
After finding out about her husband Craig’s infidelity, bestselling author and mom-of-three Glennon Doyle Melton was faced with this question from Craig: “I just need to know if you can really know me and still love me.” It turned out to be a question she needed to ask God and herself as well in this powerful memoir about love and self-discovery.

Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all,” writes Frank McCourt in his Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece. This stunning tale of his childhood in the slums of Ireland is filled with poverty, hunger, and cruelty, but ultimately, it’s a story about survival and the strength and love that can emerge from personal pain.

The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr
Often credited with reviving the memoir as an artform, Mary Karr’s 1995 The Liars’ Club is a bracingly honest, darkly comic account of her east Texas upbringing with a heavy-drinking dad, a sassy sister, and an often-married “nervous” mother. The truth, no matter how ugly, is important to Karr, and her courage at revealing such a personal tale through her poetic storytelling makes the book one you won’t soon forget.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
A teenaged Anne Frank wished to find her one true friend to whom she could reveal her innermost thoughts. Upon reading the journal she kept for two years while her family was in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, it would seem that she did find that friend—her diary, the pages of which reveal the indestructible nature of the human spirit.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan
Twenty-four-year-old New York Post reporter Susannah Cahalan woke up one day in 2009 in a hospital, strapped to a bed, wearing a bracelet that read, “flight risk.” She could not move or speak and had no memory of the last month, which included violent episodes, hallucinations, and severe instability. With her journalistic talents, she’s able to piece together the events that led her here and to an eventual diagnosis of a rare autoimmune disease.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
Essayist David Sedaris is by far one of the funniest modern-day writers, and his collection of humorous essays about his life in two parts: his upbringing in the ’burbs of North Carolina—getting speech therapy for his lisp (and subsequently just avoiding words with an “s” sound), dealing with a micromanaging father, and more—and his move to Normandy with his partner despite not speaking the language.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey
In Bossypants, Tina Fey covers everything including the origins of her facial scar sustained during an attack by a stranger, her time as a teenage drama kid befriending “half-closeted” gay men, her start with The Second City, her job on Saturday Night Live, becoming a mother, turning 40, and more. Her delivery is hilarious and insightful, making for an uplifting, laugh-out-loud read.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir quickly became a classic on grief and mourning. It recounts her experiences after her husband John Gregory Dunne’s death in 2003, a time during which she was also caring for their daughter who was hospitalized with pneumonia and then again with bleeding on the brain. Didion’s is a very personal story but one that has broad appeal, speaking to anyone who has ever loved and lost someone.

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
Jeanette Walls grew up impoverished and neglected with two deeply dysfunctional parents—her father was an often-unemployed alcoholic with pipe dreams of building his dream house, a glass castle, and her mother was a self-described “excitement addict” more concerned with her artwork than providing food for her children. Walls’s is a story not just of rising above and breaking the cycle but also of unconditional love for her family despite their flaws.

Coming Clean, by Kimberly Rae Miller
“Every night before I went to sleep…[I asked] for the things I wanted most in life: new dolls, a best friend, and for my house to burn down,” writes Kimberly Rae Miller in her moving memoir about being raised by two parents who were extreme hoarders. Without self-pity, Miller details the ensuing shame, stress, and trauma caused by growing up in a rat-infested house that resembled “the remnants at the bottom of a garbage can.”

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott
Bestselling author of Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott reveals to readers how she came to believe in God and in herself. With her candor, humor, and irreverence, she takes us on a journey, hopping across lily pads to faith in God, whom she describes as “one crafty mother.”

The Memory Palace, by Mira Bartok
Mira Bartok grew up with a very talented but very ill mother who suffered from schizophrenia, but after a 1990 incident in which her mother cuts her with broken glass, Bartok and her sister, Rachel, make the decision to flee. After a 17-year estrangement, Bartok is in an accident that causes memory loss, leading her to reconnect with a mother who is now homeless and dying of stomach cancer. The heartbreaking and moving story deals with forgiveness, physical and emotional healing, and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi
Literature has the ability to transform people, and that’s exactly what it did for Azar Nafisi and the seven young women she brought together at her home every week for two years before she left Iran in 1997. While there, they would read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature like Pride and Prejudice and Lolita, whose stories ultimately intertwined with the women’s own lives in Iran during this tumultuous time.

Night, by Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel’s memoir is a powerful, painful, intense, and terrifying account of his own personal experience of surviving the Holocaust. In 1944, Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He lost his innocence and his entire family to pure evil and remained dedicated to bearing witness to the horror experienced by so many.

All Over but the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Rick Bragg grew up impoverished and fatherless in Alabama with a mother who scrimps, saves, and sacrifices just so her children will have school clothes and other necessities. Destined for either the cotton mills or jail, Bragg persevered and ultimately rose up to “the temple” of his profession with a job at the New York Times in this moving memoir that readers will not soon forget.

My Misspent Youth, by Meghan Daum
Mentions of things like America Online will certainly date this 2001 collection of personal essays by nonfiction writer extraordinaire Meghan Daum. But the sharp, ironic, and funny writing is timeless. Daum covers everything from her hatred of carpet to being a 26-year-old working a low-paying job while trying to pay rent on the Upper East Side of New York.

Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
“People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well.” There would be a Boston psychiatric hospital where 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen spent two years in 1967 after one session with a bullying psychiatrist whom she’d never seen before. Readers follow her on a journey into madness and back again in this brave, vivid memoir.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah
An estimated 300,000 children are currently fighting in wars around the world, and Ishmael Beah used to be one of them. After fleeing a rebel attack, Beah was picked up at 13 years old by the government army, given an AK-47, and sent out to be a killer in in Sierra Leone’s civil war. Now 25, he tells his story of survival and the ongoing horror still experienced by child soldiers in this bracing memoir.

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Jennifer Finney Boylan lived the first 43 years of her life as a man named James. To outsiders, James seemed happy, even marrying a woman and having two children, making it all the more challenging for James to come to terms with the realization he was born transgendered. In this funny and honest 2003 memoir—one of the first bestselling books by a transgender American— Jennifer tells the story of sharing her truth with family, friends, and colleagues and undergoing sexual reassignment surgery to live life as her real self.

Stitches, by David Small
David Small’s bestselling graphic memoir is a difficult and painful but powerfully profound read. Small grew up with two parents that did not communicate with him but constantly subjected him to multiple x-rays for minor ailments—the procedures eventually gave him cancer, left untreated for years. At 14 he awakes from an operation he was not informed about that removed a vocal cord, leaving him virtually mute. His hellish journey from horror to hope is conveyed with great honesty and tremendous talent in this memoir.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by Alexandra Fuller
Alexandra Fuller’s memoir tells the story of her African childhood, growing up in a family of white Zimbabwean tenant farmers in the ’70s and ’80s. The book is filled with striking and honest details of living in an often inhospitable place, including the fact that her parents warned her and her sister not to come into their bedroom at night, as they both slept with loaded guns in the midst of the civil unrest surrounding them. A compelling story told with beauty and humor in places where you might think none could be found.

Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton
Gabrielle Hamilton, the owner and chef of New York’s Prune restaurant, is not only a master of cookery, but she’s also a masterful writer and storyteller as evidenced by her 2011 memoir. It was accurately dubbed by Anthony Bourdain as “simply the best memoir by a chef ever—ever.” The book follows Hamilton’s journey to where she is today, from her upbringing to the many kitchens she found herself in over the years.

Out of Egypt: A Memoir, by Andre Aciman
Andre Aciman beautifully captures a place, time, and group of people—amazingly preserving all three in his much-lauded memoir. In it, he remembers his Sephardic Jewish family’s experiences living in Alexandria, Egypt and then defeatedly fleeing three generations later. It encompasses the family’s adventures and disappointments in a well-written, touching narrative.

What memoirs do you think are indispensable? 

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