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 rounded up 20 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.
Here are our picks for the best memoirs of all time.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
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.
Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
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. Chew-Bose 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.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
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 as 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.
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
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. Neither straight autobiography nor fiction, she writes about her family's past, Chinese legend, and her own childhood.
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder
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. 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.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
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 Murakami 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.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
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.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
In this 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.
Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston
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.
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso
Minimalists rejoice. This pocket-size book is the result of Sarah Manguso's mission to write a book composed of only quotable moments. As such, expect to underline every sentence. At moments touching and sweet and others seering and raw, you'll find a little bit of everything.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story by Dave Eggers
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.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
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.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Instantly one of the most popular books of our time, Becoming takes us on a deeply personal and powerful account of the beloved former First Lady's journey starting from her upbringing in Chicago all the way through her experience as the first African-American family in the White House. Through it all, Michelle Obama reminds us that each and every one of our stories matter and is where our true power lies.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
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.
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock
As a trans woman of color, Janet Mock bravely and openly shares her truth and extraordinary story. From a sex abuse survivor and former sex worker to an empowered trans leader and advocate, Mock explores complex issues many of us can relate to that include identity, self-love, and poverty.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death by Jean-Dominique Bauby
An extraordinary true tale-turned-film by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor-in-chief of French Elle. After suffering a massive stroke that left Bauby completely paralyzed aside from blinking and eye movements, he manages to find joy in imagination and wrote the entire memoir through 200,000 blinks in response to a recited alphabet. You'd have to have a heart of stone to not be utterly moved by this heartbreakingly-inspiring tale.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
This best-selling memoir set in the 1960s details Kaysen's time spent at a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at the tender age of 18. There, she meets several characters, one of whom is a sociopath named Lisa, later played by Angelina Jolie in the movie version. Kaysen's brilliant writing will make you question your own definition of what is normal and sane.
More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) by Elaine Welteroth
Elaine Welteroth, former editor-in-chief and femme force behind Teen Vogue's transformation, has penned an incredibly insightful memoir that serves as an uplifting manifesto for the modern woman. You'll never want to play small again after reading it.
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
Though Elizabeth Gilbert's iconic memoir garnered many critics as well as fans, it marked a turning point for the 21st century woman. Detailing the modern-day heroine's journey of self-discovery, Gilbert sets out on an epic year of travel following a life-shattering divorce at age 35. It is ultimately about one woman's quest to redefine and reclaim true meaning and joy for herself.
Up next: These are the best books on leadership to boost your career.