Though memoirs imply a "me, me, me," theme (take out the "moir" and "me" is all you have), they're really some of the most self-sacrificing, accessible, and valuable books to keep on your shelves. So much more than a self-portrait, they lay bare the stories we didn't even know we needed to hear. Through confession, humor, and poetic prose, the best memoirs are meant to bring us closer to ourselves, to dig deeper, and to connect with language. Memoirs also tend to be fun to read; even the ones about tragedy breed hope and inspiration.
Simply put, reading a memoir is like talking to your wisest friend. So we gathered up 13 of the best memoirs ever written, from the unconventional and obscure to mainstays and American classics. And we know that's a bold statement, but once you get your hands on these memoirs, you'll see what we mean.
Blue Nights is a memoir about loss, maternal love, memory, and grief. Like all of Joan Didion's work, she has a way of getting straight to the heart of things and bringing you there with her. She wrote this one after her daughter, Quintana Roo, passed away a year after she lost her husband.
Words of Wisdom: "Fade as the blue nights fade, go as the brightness goes. Go back into the blue."
"During the blue nights you think the end of the day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice; the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone... Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning."
More Memoirs Like This: Afterglow and The Year of Magical Thinking
Too Much and Not the Mood is as good as its title implies, though reading it alone provokes a lifetime of thought. This masterful collection of personal essays grapples with feelings that we can all relate to, regardless of what behavior and events or nonevents led us to them. The first essay is particularly moving and resonant, as Chew-Bose begins the essay discussing an obscure, probably infrequently used emoji and its larger implications about the heart's will to continue beating against all odds.
She talks about her childhood, her tendency to curl up in nooks, and what that tells us about her, and what it's like to long and love.
Words of Wisdom: "When I stand naked in the room after a long day of stupid letdowns… Even then, when nakedness can't undo the day, when my heart is lodged in my throat, and my whole body falls limp—my whole body like my left wrist when I fasten my watch with my right wrist. Limp like that. Even then."
More Memoirs Like This: All the Lives I Want and The Rules Do Not Apply
In Roxane Gay's memoir, you'll hear the intimate and honest story of her relationship with herself and her body. As with all her work, it's incredibly effective and insightful. She asserts herself a storyteller, pointing out the simplicity and complexities that exist in everything, from violence to love to weight to gender to dating to sexual assault and more.
Words of Wisdom: "I am stronger than I am broken."
More Memoirs Like This: Bad Feminist and Men Explain Things to Me
Maxine Hong Kingston's book is now considered an American classic, and she is one of the pioneering memoirists to challenge the conventions of the genre. Not straight autobiography nor fiction, she writes about her family's past, Chinese legend, and her own childhood.
Words of Wisdom: "My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by necessity, a riverbank that guides her life. She plants vegetable gardens rather than lawns; she carries the odd-shaped tomatoes home from the field and eats food left for the gods."
More Books Like This: Reading Lolita in Tehran and Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life
A self-proclaimed "superficial woman of depth," Broder is a modern-day hero of sorts. You may recognize her and the title of this book from her Twitter handle, and while it's charming as a string of 140 character tweets, it's even better in confessional prose. So raw and vulnerable, this book is what you pick up when you feel alone in your pain, in your fears, in your regrets and mistakes. At times heartbreaking and at others hilariously self-deprecating, Broder's relentless bravery will make you laugh out loud while simultaneously shedding a tear and feeling deeply introspective.
She's especially honest and poignant in her writing on love and anxiety in the digital age, with "Never Getting Over the Fantasy of You Is Going Okay."
Words of Wisdom: "I am giving you permission to tell the truth about where you are in your process of dismantling your fucked-up schemas. I am not pressuring you to dismantle anything. I am saying let's be here together, undismantled, and just accept that this is where we are. Let's love each other right where we are, even as we compare ourselves to one another. I am saying, yes, baby, I know it's hard."
More Memoirs Like This: I'll Tell You In Person and Slutever
Have you ever thought of writing like running and running like writing? Written by one of the greatest thinkers and artists of our time while he was training for a marathon, it's full of philosophical insight and metaphors that anyone can relate to whether or not you love running and writing or despise them.
Words of Wisdom: "I look up at the sky, wondering if I'll catch a glimpse of kindness there, but I don't. All I see are indifferent summer clouds drifting over the Pacific. And they have nothing to say to me. Clouds are always taciturn. I probably shouldn't be looking up at them. What I should be looking at is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature."
More Books Like This: Wild and Just Kids
Written in a list of personal anecdotes, philosophical theories, random musings, and cultural references all about the color blue, this book defies categorization. Inventive in form and emotionally moving, Maggie Nelson knows how to reach her readers and get them to think and feel with more depth.
Words of Wisdom: "'We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object'—this is the so-called systematic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you."
More Memoirs Like This: Love, An Index and The Argonauts
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an American classic. Maya Angelou takes us through her early years in small Southern towns and later, her adulthood in the Bay Area. It's a remarkably moving and raw narrative about resilience and dignity among trying circumstances. And of course, as to be expected by Angelou, the language and tone are beautiful and gripping.
Words of Wisdom: "At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice."
More Memoirs Like This: The Glass Castle and Letter to My Daughter
At times funny and at times deeply pensive—but always poignant and fascinating—Zora Neale Hurston's memoir will captivate you from the first page. In this autobiography, she tells us the story of her childhood in the deep American South and how she became one of the most prolific figures of the Harlem Renaissance and American literature.
Words of Wisdom: "I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands."
More Memoirs Like This: Bone Black and Notes of a Native Son
This pocket-size book is the result of Sarah Manguso's mission to write a book composed of only quotable moments. Not the moments or narratives or fluff—just the kernel you highlight. As such, expect to underline every sentence. At moments touching and sweet and others seering and raw, there's a little bit of everything. Minimalists rejoice.
Words of Wisdom: "You'll never know what your mother went through."
More Memoirs Like This: One Day This Will Matter and The Body
When Dave Eggers was a senior in college, he lost both of his parents and became his 8-year-old brother's guardian. In his debut memoir, he manages to capture the pain of heartbreak and loss while also offering hope and humor.
Words of Wisdom: "We are the bright new stars born of a screaming black hole, the nascent suns burst from the darkness, from the grasping void of space that folds and swallows—a darkness that would devour anyone not as strong as we. We are oddities, sideshows, talk show subjects. We capture everyone's imagination."
More Memoirs Like This One: When Breath Becomes Air and Hillbilly Elegy
A young reporter wakes up in a hospital after a descent into madness wondering how she got there and why. She navigates a month-long memory lapse, several misdiagnoses, and eventually recovery, and she reports on both the experience of delusion and mental illness, as well as the rare auto-immune disorder that caused it, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.
Words of Wisdom: "We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear go with it."
More Memoirs Like This: Girl, Interrupted and The Center Cannot Hold
Me Talk Pretty One Day is a funny collection of personal essays inspired by Sedaris's attempt to learn French when he first moved to Paris. Since delivery is (almost) everything, his humor comes across even more in the audible version.
Words of Wisdom: "I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself."
More Memoirs Like This One: I Was Told There'd Be Cake and I Feel Bad About My Neck
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