No matter how much you enjoy reading fiction, sometimes there’s nothing like reading a good memoir. Throughout history, people have felt the urge to document their own experiences – and there are some stories that just need to be told. A good autobiography doesn’t only give you an intimate insight into someone else’s life and thoughts; it also can touch you, inspire you, and sometimes even change the way you think and live.
So if you’re looking to pick up a memoir, what are the most captivating books? Here are 16 of the most compelling autobiographies that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
1. Educated, Tara Westover
Raised in Idaho by a Mormon family with a deep distrust of the government, Tara Westover grew up outside of the system. She didn’t have a birth certificate, she never went to school, and she never visited a doctor – so in the eyes of the US government, she didn’t exist. Instead of receiving a traditional education, she was taught by her parents how to prepare for the impending apocalypse.
But in spite of her upbringing and emotionally abusive childhood, Westover felt a longing for knowledge pulling her away from her stagnant existence, and she went on to become a Cambridge and Harvard educated academic.
Educated is the story of how Westover achieved this and combines themes of family loyalty, poverty, and misogyny with an inspiring account of what education really is: the ability to see your life through a new perspective, and the desire to change it.
2. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby
In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the enormously successful editor-in-chief of French Elle, a celebrated academic, and the father of two young children. Then, he suffered a massive stroke. Waking up after a 20-day coma, Bauby discovered to his unimaginable horror that he could no longer speak or move. The only part of his body he had control over was his left eye.
Despite living with locked-in syndrome, Bauby’s brain remained as active as ever, and he decided to tell his story, spelling out each letter of the story a wink at a time. Bauby died two days after his memoir was published, so never got to witness its success, but today it’s regarded as one of the most remarkable memoirs of all time.
The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly is life-affirming and devastating in equal measure, but if you’re going through a hard time, it might help you fall back in love with life.
3. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
First published in 1969, Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is just as evocative, poetic, and powerful today.
Angelou’s talent for writing will transport you back in time to the Deep South in the 1930s. Covering unimaginable suffering as well as immense joy, her story is an uncompromising account of what life was like for a young black woman during the depression.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings recalls Angelou’s experiences of living with her grandmother in a small southern town, being racially discriminated against, and being raped by her mother’s lover – an incident that left her so traumatised she became a selective mute.
When The Washington Post reviewed the book in 1970, they wrote that ‘there isn’t any easy, which is to say false, line in the book,’ – and while it’s true this may not be an easy book to read at times, it is easy to see why it’s considered one of the most powerful works of the past century.
4. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
As one of the bestselling authors of all time, Stephen King is certainly well equipped to dish out writing advice – but his critically acclaimed On Writing does far more than just that.
Part memoir, part writing masterclass, this book begins with King’s childhood, before moving into his struggle with drink and drugs, his career problems, and his near-fatal accident that occurred as he wrote this book. For the second half of the book, King focuses more on writing, sharing the writing habits that have helped him become such a success, and encouraging people to stop overthinking.
If you’re an aspiring writer you’ll probably find this book incredibly useful. But even if you’re not, King’s fascinating life, friendly tone, and flawless structuring of this story will keep you gripped til the end.
5. Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel
As the author of the Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel is one of this country’s most successful and celebrated novelists – and her non-linear, five-part autobiography Giving up the Ghost is just as unusual and brilliant as her other work.
Growing up in post-war rural England, Mantel struggled with feelings of self-worth; believing she would achieve nothing of value in her life. Here she digs deep into the memories of her youth, and a childhood spent keeping secrets.
As an adult, Mantel was plagued by chronic ill health and experienced dozens of incompetent doctors who misdiagnosed her – forcing her to take harmful drugs and go on humiliating psychiatry courses. It was this series of medical errors that led Mantel to end up childless, and in Giving Up The Ghost she explains how it’s her own ghosts of missed opportunity that have haunted her as a writer.
A witty, frank, and astonishing story.
6. Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela
Coming in at around 700 pages and detailing extraordinary hardship and resilience, Long Walk To Freedom isn’t exactly a quick or light read – but Nelson Mandela’s best-selling autobiography is arguably one of the most important memoirs of modern times. Viewed as a face for peace for decades, this is the story of Mandela’s younger years, as well as the 27 years he spent in prison.
Spending almost three decades in prison might make some people bitter, but Long Walk To Freedom beautifully highlights the dignity and compassion that set Mandela apart from so many others. ‘Even in the grimmest times in prison, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going,’ he writes. ‘Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.’ An enthralling story about faith in human nature.
7. The Anti Cool Girl, Rosie Waterland
If you like reading memoirs that are injected with dark humour and brutal honesty, then The Anti Cool Girl might be for you.
Growing up in an Australian housing estate with two drug-addicted parents, Rosie Waterland always knew she wasn’t cool, yet she spent her days trying desperately to fit in – until she finally realised she could only be happy by embracing who she is: an anti-cool girl.
This brave, hilarious, and unflinching memoir tells the story of what it was like to grow up amidst an endless cycle of AA meetings, rehab stays, overdoses, and escapes from drug dealers.
Comparing herself to her beautiful older sister, Waterland battled weight issues, mental health problems, and alcoholism – yet as dark as the tale is, there’s plenty of levity too, and you’ll probably laugh out loud more times than you can count.
A dark yet uplifting blackly comic autobiography.
8. The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch
If you knew you only had a few weeks left to live, what type of legacy would you want to leave behind? If you were doing a final lecture, what type of things would you say?
The idea of giving a ‘last lecture’ is not uncommon, and many professors are asked to imagine that they’re dying and ruminate on what’s most important to them. But for Professor Randy Pausch, he didn’t have to imagine; he’d been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and had only weeks to live.
In this moving and uplifting memoir, Pausch realised he had the opportunity to shape and create his own legacy, and his book is all about the importance of overcoming hardship, helping other people, and seizing every moment. ‘Time is all we have’, he wrote, ‘and one day you may find you have far less than you think’.
The Last Lecture is about everything Pausch learned and believed, and reading his story can help us find a powerful new appreciation for life.
9. Wild Swans, Jung Chang
Wild Swans has sold more than 13 million copies and won multiple awards – and this extraordinary book is worthy of all the praise.
In Jung Chang’s memoir, she tells the story of three generations of women in her family – her grandmother, her mother, and her own story – as they struggle to survive through the turmoil of living in China throughout the 20th century.
The three women’s stories all involve hardship in the face of cruelty, but there’s also plenty of inspiring bravery and dogged endurance. Her grandmother was forced to be a concubine for a warlord, her mother was an idealistic young Communist during the Cultural Revolution, and Chang herself was a Red Guard, a peasant, a ‘barefoot doctor’, and an electrician.
One of the most acclaimed histories of China, the scope and detail of this compelling book makes it a masterpiece.
10. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
In 1996, journalist and expert climber Jon Krakauer joined an expedition to climb the world’s tallest mountain. On the 10th May, reeling from sleep deprivation and oxygen depletion, he finally reached the summit. On his way down he noticed a group of his fellow climbers still struggling to the top, apparently unaware that dark storm clouds had begun to gather in the sky. Hours later, Krakauer reached his tent – but the others weren’t so lucky.
The next morning Krakauer learned that six of his fellow climbers hadn’t returned and were stuck out in the unforgiving blizzard. Eight people died, and in his memoir In Thin Air, Krakauer tells the true, devastating story of what really happened at the top of the world. He also explores what it is about Mount Everest that compels so many people to expose themselves to such risk and hardship.
An incredibly compelling story about survival against all odds.
11. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Just before Christmas 2003, writer Joan Didion and her husband Gregory saw their only daughter fall ill. At first, they thought it was flu, then pneumonia, then it developed into complete septic shock, and she was put into an induced coma and placed on life support.
After visiting the hospital a week later, Didion and her husband were eating dinner when he suffered a massive heart attack and died. Though Didion’s daughter woke from her coma, she died a year later from acute pancreatitis.
The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of what happens when a family is torn apart in an instant. What do you do when a loving 40-year union ends in a blink of an eye? When your child dies too, what is left? How can you make sense of such a tragedy?
Didion’s memoir is her attempt to make sense of it all, and as well as telling her own story, the book is an exploration of grief and how we deal with it in different ways. Not an easy read, but an unforgettable one.
12. Know My Name, Chanel Miller
She was known to the world as Emily Doe when her victim impact statement went viral – but in her memoir, Chanel Miller reclaims her identity.
When she was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner while unconscious at Stanford University in 2015, a guilty verdict and long sentence seemed certain: there were eyewitnesses, physical evidence, and when confronted, Turner fled. But in a case that shocked the world, the judge handed out a six-month sentence – of which Turner served three – stating that Turner would suffer from a longer sentence.
When Miller’s 7,000-word victim impact statement was made public, her ordeal and Turner’s light sentence received public outrage and led to changes in US law as well as the recall of the judge.
Know My Name isn’t only the story of what it’s like to survive such an ordeal with the eyes of the world on you, but is the work of a deeply intelligent, emotive, and sophisticated writer. Though it’s a distressing read at times, it’s also enormously hopeful, humorous, inspiring, and powerful.
13. Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt
Irish-American writer Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes became a worldwide phenomenon when it was released in 1996, selling millions of copies, winning the Pulitzer prize, and being made into a film. And no wonder: his memoir is simultaneously heartbreaking and humorous, documenting his early childhood in Brooklyn tenements, and then later, in the Limerick slums.
Angela’s Ashes is the story of what it was like to grow up in extreme poverty in both New York and Ireland in the 1940s. McCourt and his siblings lived in starvation and squalor, endured abuse and cruelty from his abusive alcoholic father, and experienced discrimination for being Irish immigrants – and yet, against all odds, he retained his sense of humour.
Once you start reading, this brilliant, witty, and devastating book won’t let you stop until the end.
14. I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai
Written by the winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, the title of our next book may seem pretty self-explanatory. But I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban covers so much more than Yousafzai’s brutal, point-blank shooting in the head by the Taliban when she was only 14 years old.
The memoir begins documenting Yousafzai’s early childhood in Pakistan and the pressures of daily life there – particularly for women. But inspired by her father, Yousafzai refused to settle for a life of cooking, cleaning, and raising children, and fought for her right to an education.
After she was shot, she became a global symbol of peaceful protest, and this book will show you just how much one person can inspire change in the world.
15. Becoming, Michelle Obama
Whether you’ve read Barack Obama’s autobiography A Promised Land or not, Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming is a fascinating, moving, and deeply revelatory account of what it was like to live at the world’s most famous address. And as The Guardian wrote in their review, reading Becoming ‘is like inserting a missing piece of reality into the narrative of [Barack Obama’s] dizzying journey.’
So much more than just a First Lady, Michelle Obama has established herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls all around the world, and in her memoir, she writes about how her early experiences growing up in the south side of Chicago shaped her. With humour and honesty, she documents the pressures she felt raising two young girls in the unforgiving media spotlight, all while balancing her own work and trying to support her husband.
The book details both Michelle Obama’s biggest accomplishments and disappointments – both professionally and personally – and how she has always strived to live a life of meaning.
Written with both warmth and wit, Becoming is the story of a woman who has continually defied expectations, and who has a genuine passion for inspiring other people to believe they can do the same.
16. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
You can’t have a list of the best autobiographies and not include The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. With the threat of World War II looming ever closer, 13-year-old Anne received a diary for her birthday, and in her first entry she wrote, “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support”.
Anne, along with her sisters, parents, another family, and a dentist, spent the next two years hiding in a house in Amsterdam, and in her diary, Anne poured her heart out. She wrote about what it was like to live in such extraordinary conditions, the continual fear of being caught, and the frustration and pressures of living as a prisoner. She also documented more regular teenage experiences, like struggling with her emerging sexuality and arguing with her mother and sister.
Though Anne tragically died in a concentration camp in 1945 at the age of 15, her words continue to inspire the tens of millions who have since read her diary. Considered one of the great books of the past century, The Diary of a Young Girl doesn’t only reveal the horrors of what it was like to be a Jewish teenager during the holocaust but captures the wit, insight, compassion, and depth of a young woman who was far wiser than her years.
The genre of the memoir contains a myriad of captivating works, which can give us incredible insights into different times, societies, and experiences – as well as the inner workings of the mind.
From stories of extraordinary survival to wartime experiences and difficult childhoods, some of the books on this list might not be easy reading. But they all share something in common: they’re all well-written, compelling, and though they might be harrowing at times, they’re also uplifting and inspiring.
Reading stories of other people’s experiences can help us make sense of experiences in our own life, understand other people better, help us move on, and give us the conviction that we too can overcome whatever life throws at us.
Have you read any good autobiographies lately, or do any on our list sound interesting to you? Or maybe you have some of your own memoir suggestions you’d like to share with our readers? We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below or join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum.