It takes a lot to open about your personal experiences and write a memoir—and it takes even more to write about your life experiences in a way that’s compelling, captivating, and worthwhile. Luckily, some of the most famous memoirs have managed to do just that.
Below are 13 memoir books that live up to the hype. From historical accounts about World War II to life in the White House to everyday stories that feel extraordinary; these are the memoirs that deserve a place on your reading list.
West with the Night
After reading Markham’s memoir about her 1936 solo flight across the Atlantic, Ernest Hemingway famously wrote to his editor that Markham “has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” Read this memoir before checking out bestselling-author Paula McClain’s acclaimed novelization of Markham’s life in Circling the Sun.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou’s memoir became famous for a reason. Poetic, painful and powerful, Angelous recalls her childhood and the many abuses she suffered, from the casual cruelty of the local “powhitetrash” to being sexually assaulted when she was just eight years old. Somehow, however, Angelou remained hopeful—and by loving herself and finding the kindness in others, she learned how to be free.
All Creatures Great and Small
Having a bad day, a rough month even? We dare you to read All Creatures Great and Small or any of Herriot’s celebrated memoirs and not crack a smile. These charming stories of a country animal doctor from a “wise and wonderful writer” were the basis for the BBC series of the same name (The Boston Globe).
Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
More than 130 years after it was originally published, Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography is still considered the biggest literary achievement by a U.S. president. If you think of Grant only as a military bull and political failure, then his memoir will give you a more complete (not to mention fascinating) portrait of the man who led the Union army to victory.
Out of Africa
Karen Bixen moved to Kenya from Denmark in 1914 to marry her Swedish cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. Though the marriage dissolved a few years later, Bixen stayed in Kenya to manage their coffee plantation and create her own adventures. Out of Africa is a breathtaking love letter to Kenya and the story of a woman taking her life into her own hands.
Published in 2018, Michelle Obama’s memoir is the most recent book on this list—but anyone who’s read it will tell you the life stories of Ms. Obama will almost certainly remain popular for decades to come. As the first First Lady of color, Michelle Obama’s journey to and time in the White House were certainly different than those of any before her.
Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times bestselling memoir, is not an easy read—but it is a worthwhile one. “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood,” McCourt writes. “Worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” Though McCourt grew up in poverty, near starvation, and dealt more than his fair share of cruelty from those around him, his father did manage to give him at least one thing: a gift for storytelling.
Night is not just an account of how a teenage Wiesel survived the Nazi death camps that eviscerated his family, The memoir also wrestles with his greater philosophical questions of the Holocaust: How could the god he believed in have let the Holocaust occur? Why did it occur, and what will its legacy be? This is one of the most important memoirs to come out of World War II, and, in a similar vein to the Diary of Anne Frank, essential for every human being to read at least once.
The writer of lines like, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau was the arguably original bearded hipster. But in all seriousness, Walden, part memoir, part philosophical treatise, is truly exhilarating. Thoreau's words will encourage you to derive more inspiration from the natural world around you and live a more purposeful life.
The Story of My Life
Most everyone is familiar with the story of Helen Keller—but films like The Miracle Worker pale in comparison to hearing about Keller’s life directly from her. Even the most cynical reader will be inspired by what Keller was able to accomplish in her lifetime, and will finish the book with a renewed sense of what is truly possible.
A Long Way Gone
As a 13-year-old boy in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah became a soldier in his country’s deadly civil war. At heart a thoughtful and gentle boy, Beah quickly learned that he was capable of horrific acts of violence. It’s tough to read Long Way Gone and not question what you would have done in Beah’s situation: At what point can we truly know ourselves?
A Moveable Feast
Literary nerds, be prepared to geek out at this star-studded look at the literary scene of 1920s Paris. Featuring characters such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford, A Moveable Feast is just as compelling as any of Hemingway’s novels and a must-read for fans of 20th century American literature.
Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris’s unconventional take on what comprises a memoir is a hilarious collection of essays detailing vignettes from his own life. From his attempt to learn French (hence the title—you can actually read this essay-length memoir online for free) to his father’s attempts to convince he and his siblings to form a jazz combo, Sedaris has crafted “the sort of blithely sophisticated, loopy humour that might have resulted if Dorothy Parker and James Thurber had a love child” (New York Times Book Review).
Featured Photo: "Out of Africa" (1985), via Universal Pictures