35 Memoirs Everyone Should Read
These compelling stories are guaranteed to broaden your horizons and make you see the world a little differently.
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What makes a memoir great?
Blockbuster memoirs by famous people are everywhere. (Here’s looking at you, Barack and Michelle Obama.) As inspiring as these books are, some of the best memoirs are written by people you might not have heard of—people whose stories will grab your heart and never let go. A terrific memoir, like all great books, is a ticket to someplace new. It invites you to share experiences that are sometimes harrowing, sometimes entertaining, often enlightening, and always moving. Here are 35 must-reads you won’t be able to put down. They just may inspire you to write about your own life, in great detail or in a succinct six-word memoir.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
The ramshackle house where Broom grew up was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. But it endures forever in the author’s psyche, as all of our childhood homes do. Broom deftly weaves together personal history (she is the youngest of 12 children), the meaning of home, and the larger story of New Orleans in this revealing and poignant memoir. Her mesmerizing story and the sheer beauty of her writing won her the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction. Of course, not all books in this category are memoirs—here are more of the best nonfiction books of all time.
All the Way to the Tigers by Mary Morris
In this delightful memoir, Morris brings us along on her trip to India to view tigers, which she calls “the last truly wild things.” Written in more than 100 bite-size chapters, she weaves together history, natural science, the literary significance of tigers, philosophy, and a reckoning with her own past. She also includes information on tiger conservation. It’s a welcome antidote to the infamous Tiger King series and the perfect tonic for wanderlust under lockdown.
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life by Lee Smith
Southern novelist Lee Smith took a detour from fiction to write a love letter to her Appalachian childhood, complete with bluegrass and pink molded salad. This is delicious 20th-century nostalgia—a remembrance of a way of life that no longer exists, as well as a peek into the makings of a writer’s life. Even if you’ve never been to Appalachia, it might make you a little homesick. Don’t miss these other gripping memoirs by women.
Threading My Prayer Rug by Sabeeha Rehman
Rehman and her husband came to New York from Pakistan more than 40 years ago, following their arranged marriage (which became a beautiful love story). The culture shock was intense, but Rehman, a devout Muslim, found ways to maintain her faith while befriending a wide array of neighbors and loving the country she now calls home. In addition to raising a family, she has devoted her life to advocating for interfaith understanding.
Educated by Tara Westover
This story of grit and resilience shot to the top of the best-seller lists when it was released in 2018, and it’s still required reading for anyone who wants to know what determination looks like. Raised by hardscrabble survivalists in the isolated Idaho mountains and expected only to become an obedient, unquestioning wife, Westover fought for an education. Against all odds, and despite many setbacks, she made it to Harvard and earned a PhD at Cambridge University.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and new father, was only 36 years old when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. One day he was saving lives, and the next he was losing his own. In this exquisite memoir, Kalanithi raises the biggest questions of all: What makes life worth living? Where do we find meaning? What do you do when your life has no future and when ordinary goals no longer make sense? There was no miracle cure, unfortunately. Kalanithi died in 2015. But his book remains robustly alive.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Hong’s brilliant memoir-in-essays makes an invaluable contribution to the national conversation about race—in particular, the often neglected experiences of Asian Americans. The daughter of Korean immigrants, Hong explores “minor feelings” of shame and self-doubt, along with topics such as family and friendship. Some readers will find a welcome spark of recognition; others will encounter a fresh perspective.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
At 26, Strayed felt like her life was falling apart. Her mother had died, her marriage had ended, and she was relying on drugs to get through her days. On the grounds that she had nothing to lose, she embarked on the perilous—and exhilarating—thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail. The long hike, for which she was unprepared, ultimately transformed her life. Her story is now considered an inspirational classic.
On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote dozens of fascinating books about his medical practice (including Awakenings, which became a mega-hit movie starring Robin Williams). In this deeply personal memoir, he invites the reader into the final, surprisingly sweet chapters of his life before his death in 2015. Also recommended: Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, written by Sacks’ longtime companion Bill Hayes, a street photographer who celebrates their love.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Recounting the devastating loss of five young Black men within five years, West explores the toll of institutional racism and poverty. One of these men was the author’s brother; the others were all from the rural Mississippi community where she was raised, and their untimely deaths resulted from addiction and economic struggle. Eye-opening and necessary reading.
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Grieving the death of her father, naturalist Macdonald healed herself in a most unusual way: by adopting a hawk. Specifically, she adopted a goshawk she named Mabel, whose wild ferocity mirrored the author’s own grief; the emotional migration is brilliant. MacDonald recently followed up this riveting best seller with a gorgeous collection of personal essays, Vesper Flights, which is suffused with awe at the natural world—especially birds, in all their unknowable beauty.
Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson
Yes, Tyson was a celebrity, unlike the other authors on this list. But no roundup of best memoirs would be complete without a salute to the nonagenarian who passed away in January 2021, days after the book’s publication. The groundbreaking actress defied racial barriers, accepting only roles that presented Black women with realistic dignity. She won Emmy, Tony, and Oscar Awards and inspired a generation before her death at 96. Here, she shares wise words about her journey. Don’t miss these other great books by Black authors you’ll want to know about.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a scientist? Jahren, a paleobiologist whose specialty is plants and trees, offers an accessible, sometimes intimate look at life in the lab and in the field. The reader gets to experience her passion and focus in this memorable ride down a road few of us will travel.
Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley
Conley was 19 when his parents found out his secret: He was gay. They pressured him to enter in-patient “conversion therapy” with the goal of making him heterosexual. This bracing, compassionate memoir chronicles Conley’s courageous journey to come to terms with his sexuality, stand up for his own identity, and still love the people with whom he grew up. It also sheds a necessary light on a dark chapter of our history. Here are more of the best LGBTQ+ books in every genre to read right now.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
At age 24, newspaper journalist Cahalan feared she was going crazy, with uncontrollable violent outbursts and terrifying delusions. At first, her doctors weren’t much help—some thought she’d been drinking; others believed she was suffering from severe mental illness. Fortunately, a single dedicated doctor diagnosed her with a rare but treatable auto-immune disease called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. With the help of her family and her own perseverance, she not only recovered but also put together the pieces of a medical mystery that could have ended tragically.
A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel
Himsel grew up in a doomsday cult in Indiana. Raised to believe the world was ending, and that even the eye makeup she craved was a mortal sin, she made her way to a new life in New York, ultimately converting to Judaism. One of the most remarkable parts of her story is the bond of family. Some siblings remained in the cult, as did her parents. Others left, yet no one disowned anyone. Himsel’s gem of a book is suffused with wisdom, humor, and, above all, love. Each family is obviously unique, but everyone will relate to these family quotes that hit close to home.
Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler
Kohler grew up privileged in South Africa—but that didn’t save her sister from an abusive husband. After 39-year-old Maxine died in a highly suspicious car accident, and despite evidence strongly pointing toward murder, her heart surgeon husband walked free. Kohler illuminates the special bonds between sisters as she recalls a life cut cruelly short. Like all of the best memoirs, hers is both personal and universal, a reminder that women remain at risk of domestic violence, not only abroad, but in the United States as well.
The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr
Carr’s memoir about growing up with alcoholic parents in Texas in the 1960s inspired a generation of writers to tell their truth. First published in 1995, the book was reissued 10 years later and forever belongs on any list of best memoirs. Carr’s writing is marked by candor, dry humor, and courage, as she refuses to let family secrets fester in darkness.
All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Bragg grew up dirt-poor in Alabama, the son of a violent, hard-drinking father and a mother who went 18 years without a new dress so her kids could have clothes. Without losing a sense of where he came from, Bragg became a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter. But this memoir isn’t just “worthy”—Bragg’s pitch-perfect storytelling makes for stay-up-all-night reading. For more books that you won’t be able to put down, check out this list of America’s favorite novels.
Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk
With so many memoirs centered on hard times and family dysfunction, it’s a sheer delight to encounter Volk’s quirky, loving, exuberant restaurant family. Volk’s great-grandfather introduced pastrami to America in 1888; her dad remained in the restaurant business in New York until 1988. As we all know, food and family go great together, and in this perceptive and witty book, they’re a winning combo.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
Literary giant Peter Matthiessen died in April 2014; he left behind a legacy of great works, both fiction and nonfiction. The Snow Leopard, published in 1978, is considered a modern classic. It recounts his 1972 journey deep into the heart of the Himalayas in search of the elusive Asian snow leopard—and also in search of himself. A brilliant mixture of nature writing, cultural journalism, and spiritual seeking, this is a book to read and reread.
Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home by Leigh Newman
Newman’s exhilarating memoir moves through an unconventional Alaskan childhood to a lifetime of travel and, ultimately, to a true sense of home. Her quest for courage, connection, and life’s deepest adventures is not to be missed.
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen
Iversen was raised near a top-secret nuclear weapons plant in Colorado; she later worked there and became increasingly troubled by the safety risks and health hazards, especially as people in the area became ill at an alarming rate. Here, she entwines two narratives: one about environmental peril and the other about her own family’s toxic secrets. The result is a compelling, moving, and deeply thought-provoking book.
Warrenpoint by Denis Donoghue
Literary scholar Donoghue grew up Catholic in largely Protestant Northern Ireland. Warrenpoint is an extraordinary hybrid of personal reflection, theology, philosophy, and intellectual adventure. If that makes it seem forbidding, it shouldn’t. This short book has at its heart the love between a father and son.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Mention “Irish memoir” and it’s hard not to think of Angela’s Ashes, McCourt’s blockbuster, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a cruel childhood, rich only in storytelling—and surprising humor. First published in 1996, it stayed on best-seller lists for more than two years, selling four million copies in hardcover. McCourt died in 2009, but his book lives on as a landmark in contemporary memoir, one that made the genre’s popularity skyrocket.
When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
Santiago’s 1994 account of growing up in a large family in rural Puerto Rico (which may be our 51st state someday), moving to Brooklyn, translating for her mother at the welfare office, and ultimately graduating from Harvard with high honors has become a welcome staple in schools. If you’re too old to have read it in class, you should pick it up now. The warmth and palpable tenderness of Santiago’s story feels like an invigorating embrace.
About Alice by Calvin Trillin
At 78 pages, About Alice is a small book with a big heart. It’s a kind of love letter to the humorist’s late wife, who died in 2011. You can read this tender, good-humored portrait of their marriage in an hour, maybe two—but you won’t forget it anytime soon. For more quick reads, check out these classic books you can read in one day.
Bald in the Land of Big Hair by Joni Rodgers
Rodgers was just 32 and raising two young children with her husband when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. While many cancer memoirs have been published since this one came out in 2001, few can match Rodgers’ candor and her wisecracking, laugh-out-loud humor. Perhaps laughter was her best medicine, as Rodgers is alive and well today.
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit redefines—and defies—genre. The book opens with her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, then takes us on an entirely unexpected journey encompassing everything from fairy tales and myths to a trip to Iceland to the birth of Frankenstein. The result is both wholly original and deeply moving.
In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff
Wolff is well known for his award-winning fiction and for This Boy’s Life, his extraordinary coming-of-age memoir. But the sequel, In Pharoah’s Army, about his service in Vietnam and the carnage of the Tet offensive, is also essential reading.
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The Boy He Left Behind: A Man’s Search for His Lost Father by Mark Matousek
At 38, Matousek hired a detective to help him find the father who abandoned him at age four. Matousek’s reconstruction of his parents’ lives and his remembrances of a painful childhood are as searing as his survival as an HIV-positive man are triumphant. Unflinching honesty and compassion set it apart from other dysfunctional-family memoirs.
The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes
Homes was in her early 30s, with a well-established career as a novelist, when she met her birth parents. What she found surprised and unsettled her, and sent her digging deeper into her genealogy. Her memoir is important not only for those who’ve experienced adoption but also for anyone interested in exploring personal and family identity.
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók
After a traumatic brain injury, Bartók, along with her sister, reconnected with their mentally ill mother, whom they hadn’t seen in 17 years. The family’s reconciliation makes for a powerful story of forgiveness—and the discovery of a locker the mother kept holds a key to many of Bartók’s missing memories. A National Book Critics Circle winner, the book is beautifully illustrated by the author.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
No story about the best memoirs would be complete without the sublime Maya Angelou, who chronicled her long, remarkable life in a riveting series of books. Start with this one and keep reading. For a quick fix, check out these uplifting and inspiring Maya Angelou quotes.