41 Memoirs Everyone Should Read
These compelling memoirs are guaranteed to broaden your horizons and make you see the world a little differently
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What makes these memoirs great?
Blockbuster memoirs by famous people are everywhere, climbing up lists of the best nonfiction books of all time. Not to be confused with autobiographies or biographies, memoirs make up a distinct nonfiction book genre centered on stories about specific moments in the author’s life, often on a theme like travel, growing up queer or personal growth. 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.
Terrific memoirs, like all the best books, offer a ticket to someplace new. They invite you to share experiences that are sometimes harrowing, sometimes entertaining, often enlightening and always moving. From books by Asian American writers to feminist books, these are 41 must-reads you won’t be able to put down. They just may inspire you to write about your own life, whether in great detail or in a succinct six-word memoir.
1. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Whether or not you’re a fan of Michelle Zauner’s acclaimed alternative pop band, Japanese Breakfast—and you really should be—you’ll love her (even more highly acclaimed) 2021 memoir. Crying in H Mart is Zauner’s tale of growing up Korean American in an Oregon town without many Asian American kids, of bonding with her family over delicious food in her grandmother’s Seoul apartment and of struggling with her mother’s expectations of her when she wanted to pursue music. When her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, 25-year-old Zauner returned home to care for her and was forced to reckon with her identity and reclaim the gifts her mother passed down. This is one of the most beautiful, lyrical memoirs about family, grief, food and love, which is why it’s one of the highest-rated books on Goodreads.
2. Spare by Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex
This long-awaited memoir (due to drop on Jan. 10, 2023) is one of the most-anticipated royal publications in years. Spare has been billed as an intimate, honest story of the experiences, losses and adventures that shaped Prince Harry into the man he’s become. Prince Harry’s book will reportedly cover his childhood, service in Afghanistan and more recent experiences, like becoming a husband and father. The title comes from the old saying “an heir and a spare,” a reference to his status as King Charles’s second-born son. No doubt we will discover some fascinating new tidbits about royal life, but his memoir won’t be a rosy retelling. It promises to turn into a tearjerker as the prince recounts his years coping with the loss of his mother, Diana, the Princess of Wales.
3. Solito by Javier Zamora
This is the story of 9-year-old Javier: top of his class in El Salvador, precocious and raised by his beloved aunt and grandparents. One day, he says goodbye to them and sets out on a 3,000-mile journey to reunite with his parents in America—alone but for a group of other migrants and a “coyote” who promises the trip will take just two weeks. He hasn’t seen his mother for four years and barely remembers his father. Javier Zamora made the trip successfully, in large part due to the family he found along the way, and he grew up to be a poet, as the gorgeous prose in his 2022 memoir attests. His journey (which ended up taking two months) is a harrowing, gripping tale of desert treks, thirst, fear, love and unexpected kindnesses. You’ll be unspeakably moved and immediately make Solito one of your go-to book recommendations.
4. I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
The tongue-in-cheek title gives a clue to the dark humor contained within this memoir, which came out in 2022. But you’ll have to read the whole book to understand the heartbreaking story. Jennette McCurdy, best known for her television work on shows like iCarly and Sam and Cat, writes with piercing clarity about her struggles with her abusive, overbearing mother, whose only wish was for her to become a star. Eating disorders and addiction, and her mother’s premature death from cancer, complicated her blossoming acting career. McCurdy quit acting in favor of therapy and penned this hilarious, inspiring memoir about healing from trauma and the joy of discovering your own independence. Need something a little lighter? Try these feel-good books.
5. Departure Stories: Betty Crocker Made Matzoh Balls (and Other Lies) by Elisa Bernick
It’s difficult enough being a girl in this patriarchal world; add being Jewish in a white, Christian Minnesota suburb during the 1960s and ’70s, unexamined intergenerational trauma and an imploding family run by a dynamic, unhappy matriarch, and you’ve got a perfect soup of trouble. Elisa Bernick’s engaging, tragic and hilarious 2022 memoir weaves recipes, jokes, memories, reporting and scrapbook fragments together into an absorbing and heartrending collage of a dysfunctional family. It’s ultimately a beautiful tale of how identity is formed and how resilience and hope follow when we come to terms with and rewrite our own narratives. Looking to do a little introspection of your own? The best self-help books can get you started.
6. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
The ramshackle house where Sarah M. Broom grew up was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. But it endures forever in the author’s psyche, as all 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 2019 memoir, The Yellow House. Her mesmerizing story and the sheer beauty of her writing won her the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction. Once you’ve finished this book, switch things up by picking up one of Reader’s Digest‘s favorite mystery novels.
7. All the Way to the Tigers by Mary Morris
In her delightful 2020 memoir, Mary 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-sized chapters, All the Way to the Tigers weaves together history, natural science, the literary significance of tigers, philosophy and a reckoning with Morris’s 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 your wanderlust. Looking for books that won’t cost you a penny? Check out these Kindle Unlimited books that are free for subscribers.
8. 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, Dimestore, which was published in 2016, will make you a little homesick. Dive into even more nostalgia with the best children’s books ever written.
9. Threading My Prayer Rug by Sabeeha Rehman
Sabeeha 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. One way to foster understanding? With books like 2017’s Threading My Prayer Rug and other great books about friendship.
10. Educated by Tara Westover
This story of grit and resilience shot to the top of bestseller 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, Tara Westover fought for an education. Against all odds, and despite many setbacks, she made it to Harvard and earned a PhD at Cambridge University. If you love this book but want a fictional twist on academia, pick up one (or all!) of these dark academia books.
11. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul 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 ordinary goals no longer make sense? There was no miracle cure, unfortunately. Kalanithi died in 2015. But his book (published posthumously in 2016) remains robustly alive.
12. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant 2020 memoir in essay form 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.
13. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
At 26, Cheryl 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, Wild, was published in 2013. It’s now considered among the most inspirational memoirs—and a someday classic—as well as the basis for a fantastic film.
14. 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 deeply personal memoirs, he invites the reader into the final, surprisingly sweet chapters of his life before his death in 2015—the year On the Move was published. Also recommended: Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, written by Sacks’s longtime companion, Bill Hayes, a street photographer who celebrates their love.
15. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Recounting the devastating loss of five young Black men within five years, Jesmyn Ward 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, their untimely deaths a result of addiction and economic struggle. Published in 2013, Men We Reaped is eye-opening and necessary reading.
16. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Grieving the death of her father, naturalist Helen 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 followed up this riveting bestseller, which came out in 2016, with a gorgeous collection of personal essays, Vesper Flights, a book suffused with awe at the natural world. Be warned, though: This definitely makes the list of amazing but sad books.
17. Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson
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. Cicely Tyson won Emmy, Tony and Oscar awards and inspired a generation before her death at 96. In Just As I Am, she shares wise words about her journey. Don’t miss these other great books by Black authors you’ll want to know about.
18. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a scientist? Hope Jahren, a paleobiologist whose specialty is plants and trees, offers an accessible, sometimes intimate, look at life in the lab and in the field in her 2016 memoir, Lab Girl. The reader gets to experience her passion and focus in this memorable ride down a road few of us will travel.
19. Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley
Garrard Conley was 19 when his parents found out his secret: He’s gay. They pressured him to enter inpatient gay conversion therapy with the goal of making him heterosexual. Published in 2016, 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 necessary light on a dark practice. Here are more of the best LGBTQ+ books to read right now.
20. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
At age 24, newspaper journalist Susannah 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 autoimmune 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. She chronicled the captivating story in her 2012 memoir, Brain on Fire, which went on to become a hit movie.
21. A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel
Angela 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 steady bond between family members. Some siblings remained in the cult, as did her parents. Others left. Yet no one disowned anyone. Himsel’s gem of a book, published in 2018, is suffused with wisdom, humor and, above all, love.
22. Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler
Sheila 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 bond between sisters as she recalls a life cut cruelly short. Like all the best memoirs, 2017’s Once We Were Sisters is both personal and universal, a reminder that women remain at risk for domestic violence, not only abroad but in the United States as well.
23. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
Mary Karr’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. Karr’s writing is marked by candor, dry humor and courage as she refuses to let family secrets fester in darkness.
24. Beloved Strangers by Maria Chaudhuri
Maria Chaudhuri’s gorgeously written 2014 debut, Beloved Strangers, chronicles her childhood in Bangladesh, her education in New England and her search, between two cultures, for joy. She manages to turn every detail into poetry while moving her story powerfully forward. Looking to read more but feeling the pull of a Netflix binge? These are the best book recommendations based on TV shows.
25. All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Rick 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 his 1998 memoir isn’t just “worthy”—Bragg’s pitch-perfect storytelling makes for stay-up-all-night reading.
26. 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 Patricia 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 from 2002, they’re a winning combo.
27. 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.
28. Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home by Leigh Newman
Leigh Newman’s exhilarating 2013 memoir moves through an unconventional Alaskan childhood to a lifetime of travel and, ultimately, a true sense of home. Her quest for courage, connection and life’s deepest adventures is not to be missed. These wonderful Native American books are also worthy additions to your home library.
29. Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen
Kristen 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. In Full Body Burden, her 2013 memoir, 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.
30. Warrenpoint by Denis Donoghue
Literary scholar Denis Donoghue grew up Catholic in largely Protestant Northern Ireland. Warrenpoint, the memoir he published in 2013, 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.
31. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
At the mention of Irish memoirs, it’s hard not to think of Angela’s Ashes, Frank 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 bestseller lists for more than two years, selling 4 million copies in hardcover. McCourt died in 2009, but his book lives on as a landmark for contemporary memoirs, one that made the genre’s popularity skyrocket.
32. When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
Esmeralda Santiago’s 1993 account of growing up in a large family in rural Puerto Rico, 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.
33. 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 2001, five years before the book was published. You can read this tender, good-humored portrait of their marriage in an hour, maybe two, but you won’t forget it anytime soon. If you love reading about love, you’ll adore the best romance novels of all time.
34. Bald in the Land of Big Hair by Joni Rodgers
Joni 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 2001’s Bald in the Land of Big Hair, few can match Rodgers’s candor and her wisecracking, laugh-out-loud humor. Perhaps laughter was the best medicine, as Rodgers is alive and well today.
35. The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit redefines—and defies—genre in her 2013 memoir, The Faraway Nearby. 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.
36. In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff is well known for his award-winning fiction and for This Boy’s Life, the first of his extraordinary coming-of-age memoirs. But the sequel, In Pharoah’s Army, published in 1995 and detailing his service in Vietnam and the carnage of the Tet offensive, is also essential reading. His vivid prose transports us back to a previous age, just like these great time travel books.
37. The Boy He Left Behind: A Man’s Search for His Lost Father by Mark Matousek
At 38, Mark Matousek hired a detective to help him find the father who abandoned him at age 4. 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 is triumphant. Unflinching honesty and compassion set 2000’s The Boy He Left Behind apart from other dysfunctional-family memoirs.
38. The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes
A.M. 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. Adoption memoirs like Homes’s 2007 account are important not only for those who’ve experienced adoption but also for anyone interested in exploring personal and family identity.
39. The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók
After a traumatic brain injury, Mira Bartók joins her sister to reconnect 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 Memory Palace, published in 2011, is beautifully illustrated by the author. For more works that mix words and pictures, try these graphic novels for adults.
40. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
No roundup of 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 the acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a modern classic published in 1969. Then keep reading more of the best books written by female authors.
41. Just Jerry: How Drawing Shaped My Life by Jerry Pinkney
In his forthcoming memoir (releasing Jan. 17, 2023), celebrated children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney takes readers on a journey to his childhood in postwar Philadelphia, where segregation was standard and drawing offered comfort and escape. The bestselling, award-winning illustrator of more than 100 books, Pinkney enlivens the pages of Just Jerry with artwork chronicling moments from his life. The author passed away in 2021, so instead of his planned drawings and illustrated panels reminiscent of graphic novels, the book contains his original sketches, giving readers a sense of art in creation.
Appropriate for adults who grew up with Pinkney’s illustrations in their favorite books, but really written for kids, this short memoir is flush with inspiration, particularly for aspiring artists. A very cool addition: Pinkney struggled with dyslexia as a child, so the book uses a font designed for dyslexic readers.
Additional reporting by Chloë Nannestad.