Memoir is a diverse genre. It’s not a biography — someone else telling the story of a person’s life — or an autobiography — a person telling their own life story. A memoir is the story of a particular period, theme, or experience in a person’s life. It’s a deep meditation on growing up poor, having a crippling mental illness, or living in a racist America. In this article, we look at some of the most influential memoirs of all time.
Best Memoirs to Read
A memoir can be many things: a journey through someone’s life, an insight into their mindset at a particular time, a source of comfort for those going through similar experiences, or an inspiration for those looking for something more. Memoirs are both intimate and all-encompassing; the author is frequently speaking to a large audience when telling their own story.
Human connection, learning from others, and delving deeply into people’s stories all contribute to our ability to grow, change, and empathize. For those who fully embrace this, our list of the best memoirs of all time is one they won’t want to miss. From celebrities to people facing injustice in the world, these books will linger in readers’ minds long after they’ve finished them and would make an excellent holiday gift this year!
Memoirs are a subgenre of autobiographies, which often cover an entire life. Memoirs, on the other hand, center the narrative on a single or series of defining events in the writer’s life. While some of our favorites in these genres are by writers who aren’t household names, it’s always fun to curl up with a celebrity A-lister. Nothing beats diving into a good memoir and immersing yourself in someone else’s life.
Read on to learn more about the best memoirs of all time to read:
Angela’s Ashes by Frank Mccourt
“When I think back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. Of course, it was a miserable childhood: a happy childhood is hardly worth your time. The miserable Irish childhood is worse than the ordinary miserable childhood, and the miserable Irish Catholic childhood is even worse.”
So begins Frank McCourt’s luminous memoir, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in Limerick, Ireland’s slums. Frank lives for his father’s stories about Cuchulain, the Irish hero, and the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children because Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works and drinks his wages when he does. However, Malachy, exasperating, irresponsible, and seducing, does instill in Frank a desire for the one thing he can provide: a story.
Perhaps Frank’s survival is due to his story. Frank endures poverty, near-starvation, and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors while wearing rags for diapers, begging for a pig’s head for Christmas dinner, and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire—yet lives to tell his story with eloquence, exuberance, and remarkable forgiveness.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
George Orwell takes us on a journey through poverty in Paris and London, where he meets a diverse range of people struggling to make ends meet. Down and Out in Paris and London is a scathing examination of the failings of a society that values money above all else.
It is Orwell’s first published work and established the tone for his dystopian literary classics — and high school required reading — Animal Farm and 1984.
In the late 1920s, Eric Blair resigned from his position as a colonial policeman in Burma, immersed himself in the slums of Paris and London, and reinvented himself as George Orwell, one of the English language’s most revered prose stylists. Orwell chose to write about the lives of the poor – the dishwashers of Paris, the tramps of London – by experiencing poverty rather than imagining it. As a result, the book is as provocative and incisive about class inequalities, homelessness, and social prejudices today as it was in 1933.
George Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, is considered a masterpiece of prose writing. This edition includes an introduction that examines Orwell’s book in terms of its literary, social, and political significance.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel’s seminal, best-selling graphic memoir about her troubled relationship with her late father. Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, didn’t find out her father was gay until she was in college. Bruce Bechdel, a distant and exacting English teacher, was also the director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the “Fun Home.” He died a few weeks after this revelation, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to solve.
Personal history becomes a work of incredible subtlety and power in her hands, written with controlled force and infused with humor, rich literary allusion, and heartbreaking detail.
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, as well as a revelatory look into a deeply dysfunctional but uniquely vibrant family. When Jeannette’s father was sober, he captured his children’s imaginations by teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. When he drank, however, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who despised domesticity and the responsibility of raising a family.
The Walls kids learned to look after themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another until they arrived in New York. Their parents chose to be homeless while their children prospered, so they followed them.
The Glass Castle is a truly remarkable memoir, permeated by the intense love of a strange but devoted family. In 2017, Lionsgate released a major motion picture based on the memoir, starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our time, with a life full of meaning and accomplishment. As the first African American First Lady of the United States of America, she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the United States and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lifestyles, and standing by her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she taught us a few dance moves, dominated Carpool Karaoke, and raised two grounded daughters in the face of an unforgiving media spotlight.
Michelle Obama invites readers into her world in her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on Chicago’s South Side to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. She describes her triumphs and disappointments, both public and private, with unerring honesty and lively wit, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Becoming is a deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has consistently defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.
Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover, who was born to survivalists in the Idaho Mountains, was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so cut off from society that there was no one to ensure the children’s education or to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. Tara decided to try a new way of life after her brother got into college. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her across oceans and continents to Harvard and Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d gone too far and if there was any way back.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Chef Anthony Bourdain spilled all the dirty secrets he learned in 25 years of working in the culinary trade, including sex, drugs, and drama, in Kitchen Confidential. Restaurant kitchens are filthy and filthy, but they are where the best chefs learn their trade.
The book is an expansion of his 1999 New Yorker essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” In London, Bourdain said he was inspired by Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris, which features a behind-the-scenes look at restaurant dishwashers.
Food memoirs exploded after Kitchen Confidential, and food memoirs are now a popular subgenre. It also launched Bourdain’s public career, as he went on to write several more food memoirs and host food travel shows on CNN and the Food Network.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
“We saw the lightning, and that was the guns; we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; we heard the rain, and that was the blood falling; and when we came to reap the crops, it was dead men.” HARRIET TUMBLE
Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life in five years to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can befall people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses one after the other prompted Jesmyn to wonder: Why? As she began to write about her experience of living through all of the dying, she realized the truth, which took her breath away.
Her brother and friends all died due to who they were and where they came from, due to a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the breakdown of family and relationships. Jesmyn claims the answer was so obvious that she felt stupid for missing it. But it nagged at her until she realized she had to write about her community, their stories, and her own.
Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, a brutal world, rendered beautifully, will sit comfortably alongside Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Jesmyn grew up in rural Mississippi in poverty. She writes powerfully about the pressures this places on men who can’t do anything right and on women who fill in for family in a society where men are frequently absent. She tells her story bravely, revisiting the agonizing losses of her only brother and friends. She writes about this parallel American universe with the objectivity of distance and the intimacy of utter familiarity because she is the only member of her family to leave home and pursue higher education.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning for two years before leaving Iran in 1997 to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former university students she had taught. Some came from conservative and religious families, while others came from progressive and secular families, and several had spent time in prison.
They were shy and uneasy at first, unaccustomed to being asked to express themselves, but they soon began to open up and speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their hopes, and disappointments. Their stories were intertwined with the ones they were reading: Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller, and Lolita—their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran.
Nafisi’s story begins in the early days of the revolution when she began teaching at the University of Tehran amid a flurry of protests and demonstrations. During those wild days, students took over the university, expelled faculty members, and purged the curriculum. When a radical Islamist in Nafisi’s class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which he saw as an immoral work preaching falsehoods of “the Great Satan,” she decided to let him put Gatsby on trial and testify as the sole witness for the defense.
To sum it up, we have reviewed the best memoirs of all time. Memoirs are a great way to learn about someone’s life and learn different things about life from others’ experiences. If you love reading biographies and memoirs, this blog will surely be helpful for you to find your next great read. Take this blog into consideration while looking for your next good read. Keep reading our blogs to learn about different reading tips and review about different books and book genres.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Should 3 Things Be in a Memoir?
A memoir is a nonfiction, first-person written account of events and memories from the author’s life. Memoirs (French for “memory” or “reminisce”) center on personal experience, intimacy, and emotional truth—memoir writers frequently manipulate their memories and real life to tell a good story.
What Makes a Good Memoir?
A good memoir is novelistic in nature, with an unfolding storyline or plot and scenes interspersed with narrative. Characters are people in a memoir and are developed in the same way that characters are developed in a novel, through narrative (description) and scenes (action and dialogue set in location).
What is the Most Important Part of a Memoir?
Your memoir should have a guiding theme, lesson, or message for your readers. It’s not just a rundown of your life but a demonstration to the reader of something based on a specific event or experience.