Are you interested in the best memoir writers? If so, check our reading list and learn about some of the lives of memorable authors, writers, and historical figures.
The best memoir books are entertaining, honest, and sometimes heartbreaking. It’s a great genre because readers can get an insight into the mindset, life story, and even personal life of a typically inaccessible public figure or a great writer.
You might be interested in a coming-of-age tale or a memoir that recounts one’s own life. If you are looking for a reading list of must-read memoirs, we’ve picked a selection of memoirs from noted writers of different genres and backgrounds. These are all available on Amazon and other books stores.
- 1. Maya Angelou, 1928 – 2014
- 2. Alison Bechdel, Born 1960
- 3. Anne Frank, 1929 – 1945
- 4. Frank McCourt, 1930 – 2009
- 5. Joan Didion, 1934 – 2021
- 6. Malala Yousafzai, Born 1997
- 7. Mary Karr, Born 1955
- 8. Michelle Obama, 1964
- 9. Barack Obama, 1961
- 10. Ernest Hemingway, 1899 – 1961
- 11. David Sedaris, 1956
- 12. James Baldwin, 1947 – 1985
- 13. Patti Smith, 1946
- 14. Henry David Thoreau, 1817 – 1862
- 15. Elizabeth Gilbert, Born 1969
- 16. David Carr, 1936 – 2009
- 17. Maxine Hong Kingston, Born 1940
- 18. Hilary Mantel, 1952 -2022
- 19. Rachel Cusk, Born 1967
- 20. Paul Kalantithi, 1977 – 2015
- FAQs About Best Memoir Writers
1. Maya Angelou, 1928 – 2014
Maya Angelou is a great example of someone who knew how to write a powerful memoir. Angelou was a civil rights activist, memoirist, and African American poet. She published several poetry books, multiple plays, collections of essays, and autobiographies during her life.
She experienced many challenging, unique, and powerful events in her life. She worked as a sex worker, a fry cook, and was a cast member of Porgy and Bess. Even though there are countless beautiful books that you should read, you should consider picking up a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Published in 1969, the book tells the story of her life from birth until she was 17. This book brought her international stardom and acclaim, positioning her as one of the most influential civil rights activists of the 20th century. Later in her career, Angelou played a role in developing movies and television shows and received countless awards and dozens of honorary degrees. You might be interested in exploring more autobiography books, check out our guide to the best autobiographies.
2. Alison Bechdel, Born 1960
If you are looking for a graphic memoir, check out Alison Bechdel. She is a famous American cartoonist and positioned herself as one of the greatest writers with her comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For.
She experienced commercial success with her graphic memoir Fun Home, which was published in 2006. This work was subsequently adapted into a musical that earned a Tony Award in 2015. Since then, she has published multiple memoirs, which have added to her legacy.
Many of her graphic memoirs are based on her experiences as a lesbian. She came out aged 19, and gender nonconformity is at the center of many of her works. She has spent time in California and Vermont and is a powerful advocate in the LGBT community. You might be wondering, why write a memoir?
3. Anne Frank, 1929 – 1945
Jewish girl Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany. When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power, Anne Frank moved with her family to Amsterdam.
While hiding from the Nazis, she wrote a diary about the war, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Eventually, they were discovered, and she and her sister were transported to Auschwitz. She was ultimately moved to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, where she passed away just 14 days before the camp was liberated. She was 15. Her mother and sister were also victims of concentration camp starvation. Her father, Otto Frank, survived the war and died in 1980, aged 91.
After her death, Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl became a powerful testimony to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Her work is a powerful reminder of the human capacity for hope and resilience in the face of adversity. Frank’s diary was adapted into a play and a movie, with the former winning a Pulitzer Prize.
4. Frank McCourt, 1930 – 2009
Frank McCourt was an Irish American writer and teacher. He was born in Brooklyn, New York City, in 1930, the oldest child of Irish Catholic immigrants. He also had four younger siblings. He grew up in the middle of the Great Depression. His family decided to move back to Ireland in 1934 to escape the depression devastating New York City. His family couldn’t work in Limerick, and his father suffered from alcoholism.
In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt wrote about his difficult childhood. The powerful memoir describes what his difficult, improvised childhood was like. With vivid attention to detail, pointing at memories, and unforgettable stories, his memoir earned a Pulitzer Prize by telling the story of the misery of his childhood. As great as this book is, many people in Ireland (including McCour’s Mother) acknowledge he embellished some details. Still, that’s something many writers do. Check out our guide to the best Irish writers.
5. Joan Didion, 1934 – 2021
American writer Joan Didion started her writing career in the 1950s after winning an essay contest in Vogue magazine. During the 1960s and 1970s, she became one of the most celebrated writers in American history. She focused on the counterculture that rocked the 1960s and the Hollywood lifestyle. Her writings, including Slouching Towards Bethlehem, focused on social rhetoric, the lack of morals, and the day’s politics.
In 1991, she again rose to stardom when she wrote an article suggesting the Central Park five were innocent. In 2005, she won a national book award for her harrowing memoir about the grief and the sudden death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. That book is a heartbreaking read. She wrote a second memoir about the unexpected death of her daughter, Blue Lights.
Many of her Didion’s books have been turned into plays, movies, and documentaries. She was the focus of a documentary that aired on Netflix in 2017, titled The Center Will Not Hold.
6. Malala Yousafzai, Born 1997
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. She is the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Prize and is the second Pakistani to earn this award. She advocates for human rights, female education, eradicating violence, and world hunger. She has generated an international movement and highlighted many issues plaguing the Middle East, Pakistan, and India.
On October 9th, 2012, Malala Yousafzai was the target of a murder attempt by a Taliban gunman in response to her activism and was shot. Yousafzai received medical treatment, spoke about her experiences, and even sent a petition to the United Nations to end violence in the Middle East.
Today, Yousafzai advocates for girls’ education while fighting for human rights. She has been interviewed by some of the top journalists in the United States, including late-night show hosts such as Jon Stewart and David Letterman. She published a memoir titled I Am Malala.
7. Mary Karr, Born 1955
Mary Karr is an American essay writer and poet from East Texas. She is also the Jessie Truesdell Peck Professor of English literature at Syracuse University. She was interested in writing from an early age, but her memoir, published in 1995, titled The Liars’ Club became a breakout success. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year and was named one of the year’s top books.
The memoir takes the reader inside a deeply troubled childhood. Her parents were alcoholics, and her mother suffered from mental health issues. Her friend encouraged her to write a personal history of her childhood, but she only decided to do so after her marriage ended in divorce. She followed up the first memoir with several others about her childhood, family, and early life. She even wrote a book about how to write memoir! Pick up the audiobook as Karr narrates it.
8. Michelle Obama, 1964
Michelle Obama is an American attorney, former first lady, and wife of former US President Barack Obama. Barack Obama was in office from 2009 to 2017. Michelle is the first African-American woman to hold the position of first lady, and she is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
Early in her legal career, she worked at the law firm of Sidley Austin. There, she met Barack Obama. After that, she worked for numerous nonprofit organizations until her husband was elected president.
Michelle Obama is one of the most admired and respected women in United States history. She gave readers an inside look at her life when she published her memoir, Becoming, which walks the audience through many of the initiatives she has led. Now, she spends her time encouraging national service, fighting for military families, and advocating for education. If you like reading autobiography books, you might want to check out our round-up of famous memoirs.
9. Barack Obama, 1961
Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, was published a year before he was elected to become a member of the Illinois senate, before his time at the White House. In his memoir, Obama tells the story of his upbringing and heritage. His father was from Kenya, and his mother was from Kansas, yet Obama was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia for some time. This memoir gives readers an inside look at Obama’s life, and we can see how his experiences allowed him to become one of the most influential US Presidents of all time.
“Sometimes you can’t worry about hurt. Sometimes you worry only about getting where you have to go.”Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
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10. Ernest Hemingway, 1899 – 1961
Ernest Hemingway was a novelist, short story author, and journalist from the early 20th century. He fought in the Spanish Civil war, served on the Italian front in World War I, and was present on the beaches of Normandy when the allies invaded Mainland Europe in 1944 on D-Day.
He published dozens of short story collections and novels, many telling stories from his own life. He based his novel A Farewell To Arms on his experience fighting during the First World War. Hemingway wrote many bestsellers, including The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea. He also wrote a memoir about his life and writings called A Moveable Feast.
Later in life, Hemingway bought several houses in Cuba and Key West. Following a plane crash in 1954, he developed chronic pain. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954. In 1959, he bought a house in Idaho and lived and write about his life on the plains. He subsequently died by suicide in 1961.
Hemingway is considered one of the greatest fiction and non-fiction writers of all time. If you want to dive into his work, check out our guide to the best Ernest Hemingway books.
11. David Sedaris, 1956
David Sedaris is an American but British-based humorist, comedian, and essayist. He is famous for his witty, self-deprecating, and often satirical essays. He regularly speaks on radio programs on the BBC and This American Life. He’s also turned many of his hit essays into books, including, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. In 2022, he published Happy-Go-Lucky.
Sedaris reflects on his personal history and observations in his essays and talks, employing a famously humorous and absurdist touch. He writes about his relationships with his father, sister, and family. Using many characteristics of a good memoir, he mixes these insights with critiques about politics, culture, and society.
Critics regard Sedaris as one of the most entertaining and original voices in contemporary humor writing. You can even take a memoir and essay writing course by Sedaris Masterclass. Read our Masterclass review to learn more.
12. James Baldwin, 1947 – 1985
James Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, and civil rights activist. Born in New York City in 1924, Baldwin grew up in poverty and experienced brutal racial discrimination. He was a prominent voice in the civil rights movement and used his writing to address the issues of race, sexuality, and social justice.
Baldwin is best known for his novels, personal writing, and essays that explore the complexities of identity, race, and society in America. Some of his most famous works include Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time. That first book is semi-autobiographical.
In his works, Baldwin challenged American society’s social and political norms and provoked reflection on the issues of race and inequality. He is considered one of the most important and influential African American writers of the 20th century, and his work is widely read and studied today. Check out our guide to the best 20th-century authors.
13. Patti Smith, 1946
Patti Smith is an American singer, songwriter, poet, and visual artist, but her fans know her best as the “Godmother of Punk.”
Born in Chicago in 1946, Smith moved to New York City in the late 1960s and became involved in the city’s vibrant and avant-garde music and art scene. Smith’s music combines elements of punk, folk, and rock. Her distinctive and raw voice, often accompanied by her powerful and politically charged lyrics, has made her a cultural icon. Her 1975 debut album, Horses is a punk and alternative rock classic. I saw her perform tracks for that album a few years ago, and she’s engaging as ever.
Smith’s memoir Just Kids is about Patti’s early career and life with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s worth picking up the audiobook of this memoir as Smith narrates it. Arguably, it’s also a type of coming-of-age book for creatives too.
14. Henry David Thoreau, 1817 – 1862
Henry David Thoreau was an American writer, poet, and philosopher recognized as an important contributor to the American literacy and philosophical movement known as New England transcendentalism, which is the belief that all people are inherently good. Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University and graduated in 1837.
Thoreaus’ working life began with a teaching job, which only lasted a few weeks because he refused to use corporal punishment on his students. This pivotal moment in Thoreau’s history paved the way for his great philosophical memoirs and his belief in naturalism and transcendentalist views.
Thoreau’s most notable memoirs works include Walden and Civil Disobedience. These texts have been used to address political philosophy, moral theory, and environmental issues. They have been of great importance to those that view philosophy as a part of our everyday existence.
“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”Henry David Thoreau, Walden
15. Elizabeth Gilbert, Born 1969
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything is an incredibly famous modern memoir that chronicles her travels around the world as she goes on a journey of self-discovery. Gilbert is an American journalist and author born in Connecticut.
Gilbert’s early career began as a highly paid freelance writer for media corporations such as Spin, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and Allure. Then, she landed a book deal with a publisher with Eat, Pray, Love,
Gilbert’s must-read travel memoir sold over 12 million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages. After becoming one of the most famous memoirs in modern times, Eat, Pray, Love was made into a film in 2010.
“This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.”Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
16. David Carr, 1936 – 2009
David Carr was an American columnist, author, and newspaper editor who wrote for The New York Times. He had a very successful career as an investigative journalist, but Carr’s most influential work is his memoir, The Night of The Gun.
This memoir looks at Carr’s struggle with addiction. For more than 25 years, Carr was a drug addict until the prospect of losing his newborn twins changed his life forever. In this emotional memoir, Carr looks back at his life and recalls his memories of important moments. However, in hindsight, post-addiction, he realizes that his memory of the events differs from reality.
Using his skills as an investigative journalist, he begins a quest to research his own life and discover the reality of what has happened. This is a challenging read, with raw emotions and unparalleled honesty.
“But I’ve seen enough to know that we all carry a measure of guilt and innocence among us.”David Carr, The Night of the Gun
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17. Maxine Hong Kingston, Born 1940
Maxine Hong Kingston is an American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants who had an eventful and captivating childhood story. Kingston’s memoir, The Woman Warrior, navigates her life as a girl in a Chinese village where women were told their destiny was to become a wife. Then, Kingston experienced life in postwar California, where she and the Chinese women in her family had to become strong voices and “American-feminine.” This narrative memoir shifts between the ghost world, the real world, and family folklore to tell the unique experience of Kingston’s childhood. This memoir is ambitious and speaks on feminism, war, and culture.
“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
- Great product!
- Kingston, Maxine Hong (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 209 Pages - 04/23/1989 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)
18. Hilary Mantel, 1952 -2022
Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost reflects on her upbringing as a Catholic girl in the north of England. This memoir looks at Mantel’s personal struggle through the misdiagnosis of endometriosis, resulting in the removal of her reproductive organs.
This memoir is Mantel’s attempt to recover the “ghost” that is her child-like self, where she was full of ambition and joy. This memoir’s undertones highlight current issues such as reproductive health, feminism, and religious tensions. With intelligence and wit, Mantel tackles the trauma of her childhood in an awe-inspiring way; it’s a must-read for all. Check out our guide to the best British authors.
“The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me. It resists finishing, and partly this is because words are not enough; my early world was synaesthesic, and I am haunted by the ghosts of my own sense impressions, which re-emerge when I try to write, and shiver between the lines.”Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost
19. Rachel Cusk, Born 1967
Rachel Cusk’s memoir, A Life’s Work, is a memoir that examines real-life motherhood. She employs transparent honesty and clarity, making the reader feel they know the writer personally. The intimate moments shared in this memoir show the ups and downs of motherhood while adding a welcome touch of wit and humor to such complex subjects.
This controversial memoir is a vulnerable look at a woman’s experience with motherhood. Praised by some and met with outrage by others, this work is an acclaimed work discussing education in babies, books, breastfeeding, bad advice, and never being alone.
“To be a mother I must leave the telephone unanswered, work undone, arrangements unmet. To be myself I must let the baby cry, must forestall her hunger or leave her for evenings out, must forget her in order to think about other things. To succeed in being one means to fail at being the other.”Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work
20. Paul Kalantithi, 1977 – 2015
Number one New York Times Bestseller, When Breath Becomes Air, is Paul Kalanthi’s journey through coping with a life-changing diagnosis. Kalantihi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36. When he received this diagnosis, he was on the verge of completing his neurosurgeon training, drastically altering his take on life.
As a memoirist, he examines what makes life work and how this incredible man coped with coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis. This unforgettable memoir reflects on the challenges of facing death and the relationship between doctor and patient.
“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”Paul Kalantithi, When Breath Becomes Air
FAQs About Best Memoir Writers
Why do people decide to publish memoirs?
Writers pen a memoir because they have a great story to tell. They believe people are interested in what they say or want to share a message. They also sometimes write them because it’s a challenging creative project.
Are memoirs the same as autobiographies?
Usually, someone writes an autobiography in the latter part of their life. In contrast, many writers pen a memoir when they’re younger. That’s because a memoir is often about a topic or a moment rather than a chronology of events.
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