Explore inspiring true stories by reading our guide with the most famous memoirs from politicians to humanitarians to authors.
Memoirs can be powerful tools for the modern writer as they allow a writer to dig deep and see exactly how they have become who they are. Many famous people who are not authors also write memoirs, giving those who appreciate their work insight into who they are. Memoirs differ from autobiographies in that they are written more narratively and rarely cover a person’s entire life. Instead, they look at one particular period of the person’s life or an incident that had a defining impact on their life.
For example, a writer may write a memoir about their childhood, or a humanitarian may write about a violent act they experienced that transformed their thinking. Some memoir writers who are not authors in their own right will use memoir writing software to craft these works, while others will turn to ghostwriters to help them put their ideas on paper. The true stories in many of these famous memoirs make them powerful works worth reading.
- 1. Becoming by Michelle Obama
- 2. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
- 3. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
- 4. Educated by Tara Westover
- 5. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
- 6. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
- 7. Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
- 8. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- 9. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
- 10. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- 11. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
- 12. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
- 13. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
- 14. Night by Elie Wiesel
- 15. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
- 16. Just Kids by Patti Smith
- 17. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- 18. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- 19. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- 20. My Train to Freedom by Ivan A. Backer
- 21. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
1. Becoming by Michelle Obama
In Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama tells of her life and becoming the first African American to serve in this role. In the book, she explores how her childhood in Chicago, her early days as a mother, and her time as First Lady grew her into the woman she is today. She also looks at her advocacy work for women’s rights and how she kept her daughters grounded even while raised in the public eye.
“Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”Michelle Obama
2. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir Angela’s Ashes. This son of Irish immigrants was born in Brooklyn during the Depression, only to move back to Ireland and the slums of Limerick for much of his childhood. His mother had little money, and his father was an alcoholic, giving McCourt many trials to overcome. Yet he can tell his story with his signature humor and plenty of compassion for the people who came across his path, making this such an engaging memoir. For more, check out our guide to the best Irish writers.
Looking for more? Check out these memoir writing prompts.
“He says, you have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can’t make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”Frank McCourt
3. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
Poet Mary Karr tells the story of her childhood in The Liar’s Club, a bestselling memoir about what it was like to grow up in a refinery town in East Texas. Her family had plenty of quirks, including a mother who had been married seven times and a father who loved to go to the Liars’ Club to tell stories with his friends. This is a haunting memoir that is full of raw honesty, and that makes it quite appealing to the reader.
“I kept the fingers of my left hand crossed all the time, while on my right-hand fingers I counted anything at all—steps to the refrigerator, seconds on the clock, words in a sentence—to keep my head occupied. The counting felt like something to hang on to, as if finding the right numbers might somehow crack the code on whatever system ran the slippery universe we were moving through.”Mary Karr
4. Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover had an interesting childhood. Born in the mountains of Idaho to a survivalist family, she learned how to can peaches and stew herbs for her midwife mother but never went to school. When she went to college for the first time at 17, she was shocked by everything she didn’t know. Educated is a coming-of-age story that is a tale of self-invention that shows the true value of education.
“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”Tara Westover
5. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
Jeanette Walls grew up with an alcoholic father who was an amazing dad when sober but a dishonest, destructive person when drunk. Her mother was too free-spirited to care for her kids, leaving them to fend for themselves. Eventually, the children went to New York, where they find success despite their trials. Readers love The Glass Castle because it is written like well-done fiction, even though it tells a true story.
“You should never hate anyone, even your worst enemies. Everyone has something good about them. You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.”Jeanette Walls
6. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Winner of the 2012 GoodReads Choice award, Wild tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, who decides to hike from the Mojave Desert to Washington State along the Pacific Crest Trail. What made this so inspiring was the fact that she had no experience or training. It tells an adventurous story of a journey that led to Strayed’s healing after the loss of her mother and the destruction of her marriage.
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”Cheryl Strayed
7. Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
Over the span of five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life. She uses her memoir to explain why black men, in particular, seem to have bad luck. She explores the history of racism and economic struggle that plagued her family and what it meant to grow up in poverty in Mississippi. Her powerful writing in Men We Reaped showcases a challenging theme of intimacy and grace.
“We crawled through time like roaches through the linings of walls, the neglected spaces and hours, foolishly happy that we were still alive even as we did everything to die.”Jesmyn Ward
8. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air is the memoir of a young neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, who faces a terminal cancer diagnosis, this diagnosis pushes him to determine what makes life worth living. He asks the hard, moving questions that we often only ask when facing death. Kalanithi died before finishing the book, and his widow finished it for him.
“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”Paul Kalanithi
9. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
Dreams from My Father is a compelling memoir by former President Barack Obama. Rather than focusing on his presidency, this book focuses on his younger years and what it means to grow up as a black man in America. He also wrestles with the sudden death of the father he never knew and his travels to Africa to meet his extended family.
“My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe.”Barack Obama
10. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou had a challenging childhood, leading her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This famous American poet is considered one of the most powerful women in American history, and her memoir tells of her life as a young woman. She shows why she is such a strong and resilient person by chronicling her challenges as a girl. If you like reading autobiography books, you might want to check out our round-up of best memoir writers.
“The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaster and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.”Maya Angelou
11. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
I Am Malala tells the brave story of Malala, a girl who, at the age of 15, said she was going to get an education and nearly paid for it with her life. After being shot in the head at point-blank range by the Taliban, she made a miraculous recovery and was invited to stand before the United Nations to speak on the right to education for women. She eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize laureate at 16 years old, the youngest award winner.
“Outside his office my father had a framed copy of a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to his son’s teacher, translated into Pashto. It is a very beautiful letter, full of good advice. “Teach him, if you can, the wonder of books…But also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and the flowers on a green hillside,”Malala Yousafzai
12. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home is a graphic memoir that tells the story of Alison Bechdel’s tragic childhood in graphic novel style. She tells of her complicated relationship with her father, who appeared to love his home and its furnishings more than he loved her and her brother. She relates her personal story to the actions and details of The Odyssey to draw the reader in.
“Then there were those famous wings. Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?”Alison Bechdel
13. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Born a Crime is a coming-of-age story set in South Africa’s apartheid era. Born to a white man and a black woman in a time when this was illegal, Trevor Noah started his life at a disadvantage and was rarely let outdoors because of this fact. When South Africa’s tyranny was finally broken, Trevor and his mother could explore the world openly. This book is a fascinating look at a unique period of history and what it did to one little boy.
“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.”Trevor Noah
14. Night by Elie Wiesel
Night is set in World War II in Transylvania. Elie Wiesel was a young man sent to Auschwitz with his family. He tells of the death of his innocence at the hands of Nazi Germany in this chilling true story that was top in Oprah’s book choice. Night is the first in a trilogy of books.
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”Elie Wesel
15. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love explores what happens when writer Elizabeth Gilbert experiences a midlife crisis. When divorce and depression come calling, she goes on a journey of self-discovery, selling her belongings and traveling around the world for one year. This book became a bestseller after it was turned into a movie in 2010.
“This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.”Elizabeth Gilbert
16. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith is a musician and poet, and in Just Kids, she takes a stab at writing prose. The book tells of her romance with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. She also explores life in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a fascinating look at the artist and the time period. Many fans of the artist pick up this book because they love her music, only to find that Patti Smith also clearly knows how to write a memoir well.
“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”Patti Smith
17. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Diary of a Young Girl is the published version of the diary of Anne Frank, a 13-year-old Jewish girl who had to flee her home amid the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1942. Hidden away in an attic with little contact with the outside world, Anne Frank told of her trials in her diary before she was tragically caught and executed by the Nazis. This autobiographical work is haunting and moving, giving a first-hand look at what life was like during World War II. You might be interested in exploring more autobiography books, check out our guide to the best autobiographies.
“I’ve found there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.”Anne Frank
18. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion is a well-known novelist that explores culture in her work. Still, in The Year of Magical Thinking, she looks at what happened to her when she experienced an intense tragedy, the loss of her husband and the near loss of her daughter. This sent the writer into a spiral of doubt and grief, which she beautifully chronicles in this book.
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”Joan Didion
19. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway was an unknown writer living in Paris. In A Moveable Feast, he looks back on those days and the other famous writers he shared his life with. This memoir was written toward the end of the writer’s life, allowing readers to see his self-reflection on the time that made him a writer. It is also fascinating to see what Paris was like in the 1920s through his eyes. Check out our guide to the best Hemingway books.
“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”Ernest Hemingway
20. My Train to Freedom by Ivan A. Backer
Near the start of World War II, 669 Czechoslovakian children escaped the Holocaust through the Kindertransport project. Ivan Backer was on that train, and My Train to Freedom explores what happened on his trip out of Nazi-occupied territory and eventually to the United States. The author grew up to become an advocate for peace and justice, believing he was spared the Holocaust so he could make a difference in the world.
“Sir Nicholas Winton saved my life in 1939, but I didn’t know until much later.”Ivan A Backer
21. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
In this thought-provoking memoir, Roxane Gay tackles the issues of food, weight, and self-image. After enduring an act of violence as a child, Gay turns to food to hide herself and her pain. She goes on a journey to understand and save herself and skillfully writes about it in Hunger. This book is known for its honesty and vulnerability.
“I ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.”Roxane Gay
To learn more, check out our guide on how to write a memoir!