Blog – Posted on Friday, Aug 07
The 30 Best Memoirs of the Last Century
We’ve swung back round to the 20s, and they’re not exactly off to a roaring start. So, what better time to take a look back at some of the best memoirs of the last century? Whatever you’re here for — to escape, to search for hope, or to clear your head with a good cathartic cry — we’ve got you covered!
Unlike an autobiography, which tells the story of the author’s life chronologically, memoirs dive deep into the nitty-gritty of their most intimate memories, exploring emotional truths and the way these make them feel. For this reason, there’s no better way to step into someone else’s shoes.
Some books on this list will take you back in time — to cafes in 1920s Paris or the 70s in downtown New York — while others will push you to new and unfamiliar frontiers of thought. We’ve included several famous memoirs, but we’ve also made some room for a few underrated ones. Whichever books make it onto your reading list, prepare yourself to be kicked right in the feels: tears will be spilled, guts will be wrenched, and lives will be changed.
1. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)
Orwell, a penniless writer in his 20s, exposes the underworld of these glamorous cities in a memoir of two parts. First, a swanky restaurant in Paris, where he slaves for subsistence wages at the bottom of the culinary food chain. Then London, where he tramps the streets among the most desperately poor, going between workhouses and prison-like ‘spikes’ for a few hours’ sleep in a bug-infested bunk. Lacking in self-pity but brimming with compassion, Orwell gives his audience an unprecedented look at the unrelenting drudgery of life in poverty. Despite its publication date, this readable and sometimes even humorous memoir remains an enduring reminder of the trappings of class systems.
2. West with the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)
In 1936, Beryl Markham took off from England aiming to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo, and the first pilot to fly westward against the winds. 20 hours later, Markham crash-landed in Nova Scotia and became an instant celebrity. But she was much more than just a record-breaking pilot: her memoir tells the spellbinding story of her life in Kenya as a bush pilot and racehorse trainer. And though she wasn’t wholly beyond the racism of her day, Markham was out of step with her times, and shows skepticism towards the European tendency to exoticize and flatten Africa. After reading West with the Night, Hemingway famously wrote to his editor saying, “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”
3. Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945)
This powerful memoir about a black man’s coming-of-age in the Jim Crow South evokes the struggle for African-American identity in the bitter decades before civil rights. In the first of Wright’s arresting vignettes, he’s four years old and “angry, fretful, and impatient” as he sets fire to his family home. Deserted by his father and at odds with his sick mother, Richard continues on the path of “rejection, rebellion, and aggression.” This, he declares, was the only way to be real in a world of white hostility and subjugation. Propelled by his pursuit of knowledge, Wright goes on to seek justice north. Black Boy is a difficult but important read that has fully earned its position among the best memoirs for its stark depiction of racial tension.
4. Night by Elie Wiesel (1956)
In his memoir Night, Elie Wiesel recounts his experience in the Nazi death camps that eviscerated his family. In unsentimental detail he describes the dehumanising power of hunger, the conditions that strained his identity, and a profound crisis of faith. Just 15-years-old when he was sent to Auschwitz, Wiesel writes through the eyes of a teenager plunged into an unprecedented moral hinterland. His innocence, but also his courage, shines from every page as he stares, unfaltering, into the countenance of the Nazi’s virulent anti-Semitism. Night is an essential companion to The Diary of Anne Frank, one of the most famous memoirs of the Second World War: “Where Anne Frank’s book ends,” Wiesel once said, “mine begins.”
5. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964)
In 1956, at the end of his career, Hemingway was spurred into reminiscence by the rediscovery of some old notebooks. The memories he puts to page in this beloved memoir are of his life as an unknown author in 1920s Paris. Scintillating with the romance of the city and studded with stars including F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, this memoir is a must-read for fans of 20th century literature. Though it was written when Hemingway was in a state of terminal decline, one of the most remarkable things about A Moveable Feast is how sure and hopeful it seems. His Paris sketches are affectionate, fun, and full of wit.
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
The first volume of Maya Angelou’s memoirs depicts her life from the ages of three to sixteen, spent mostly in the Deep South during the Depression-wracked 1930s. Angelou and her brother endure the ache of abandonment as well as the prejudice of the “powhitetrash” when they are sent to live with their grandmother in a “musty little town” in Arkansas. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings traces Angelou’s growth as she finds the inner strength to struggle against the shackles of racism and misogyny. Angelou also discovers the empowering quality of books in this testament to the ability of storytelling to bridge divides and heal wounds.
7. Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974)
Best remembered as one of the first accounts of gender transition, Conundrum is perhaps the most extraordinary journey that travel writer Jan Morris has taken her readers on. As a reporter in England and Egypt, Morris went everywhere and met everyone. She climbed mountains and crossed deserts. She also had a long marriage and four children. Morris regarded every second of her life as a grand adventure, including the difficult decision to bring her hidden world into the open, undergo hormone treatment, and eventually risk the experimental surgery that turned her into the woman she truly was. “To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial,” she writes. “It was a melody that I heard within myself.”
8. This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (1989)
Wolff’s prose lights up this boyhood memoir set in 1950s America, which reads and entertains as easily as a novel. Divorced mother and son hit the road, fleeing a violent boyfriend, trying to change their luck and maybe get rich as uranium prospectors. But Wolff’s mom soon links up with another man, and Wolff finds himself in a battle of wills with a hostile stepfather. So begins an escalation of various schemes, which lead to an act of outrageous self-invention that releases him into a new world of possibility. In clear and hypnotic language, Wolff re-creates the frustrations, cruelties, and joys of adolescence, managing to be both poignant and humorous.
9. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang (1991)
Few books have had such an impact as Wild Swans: a gripping tale of nightmarish cruelty and an uplifting story of survival. Published two years after the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, this harrowing memoir arrived at the perfect time to satisfy a readership hungry for insight into life under the Chinese Communist party. Across three generations of women — her grandmother given to a warlord as a concubine, her Communist mother, and herself — Chang captures the cycles of violent drama visited on her family and millions of others during the terrible history of China’s twentieth century. Breathtaking in its scope and unforgettable in its writing, Wild Swans belongs among the best memoirs of all time.
10. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (1994)
When Lucy Grealy was nine years old, she was stricken with a virulent form of bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma and had to undergo radical surgery to remove half of her jaw. For twenty years, Lucy endured the searing pain of peer rejection, the paralysing fear of never being loved, and a heartbreaking sense of disfigurement. Despite her struggle to come to terms with her appearance, Grealy writes without self-pity or sentimentality. Full of wit, style, and class, this powerful memoir is a moving meditation on beauty and the premium we put on a woman’s face.
11. The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
Karr’s childhood in a swampy East Texas refinery town features a hard-drinking, fist-swinging father, an oft-married mother whose outlaw spirit tips over into psychosis, and a grandma who carries a hacksaw in her handbag. Yet what makes this memoir so extraordinary is that The Liars’ Club is often very funny. Karr paints a harsh world with raw and often painful honesty, but she does so with intelligent humour, comic vividness, and poetically slangy prose. Packed with eccentrics, this classic is eccentric in its own right — one of the best memoirs ever written about growing up in America.
12. The Color of Water by James McBride (1995)
McBride explores his mother’s past and his own upbringing in this powerful and poignant memoir. Ruth McBride was born Rachel Shilsky — the daughter of a failed Orthodox Jewish rabbi who fled Poland for Virginia. A self-declared “light-skinned” woman, Ruth adopted Christianity and founded a black Baptist church in her Red Hook Living room. She demanded good grades from her brood of 12 and commanded their respect. “God is the color of water,” she taught, firmly convinced that life’s blessings and values eclipse race. And though issues of race and religion are present throughout this memoir of mother and son, its triumph is that it transcends those issues to be a story of family love.
13. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996)
This Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir tells the bittersweet tale of McCourt’s childhood in the slums of Limerick and tenements of Brooklyn. “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood,” McCourt writes. “Worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” With too many children and too little money, McCourt’s unforgettable family is constantly brought to the brink of disaster by his father’s drinking habits. Yet, in the face of overwhelming odds, this is a story of survival, strength, and the love that can emerge from personal pain. Every page of Angela’s Ashes is imbued with McCourt’s humour and compassion, giving it the vitality of a work of fiction.
14. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the glamorous and witty editor-in-chief of French Elle, suffered a catastrophic stroke and lapsed into a coma. Bauby was left paralysed and speechless — a victim of locked-in syndrome. His mind, however, was unimpaired. Using his only functioning muscle — his left eyelid — Bauby painstakingly dictated his best-selling memoir by blinking in response to a recited alphabet. By turns wistful, mischievous, angry, and witty, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly records Bauby’s lonely existence, but also his determination to live as fully in his mind as he had done in his body.
15. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel (2003)
When she was 19, Mantel began suffering not only the pain of illness, but also the pain of misdiagnosis. One after another, doctors gave her several new identities: neurotic, malingerer, and, eventually, hysterectomy patient. As a result of endometriosis, the dreamy child, destined to become a knight errant, received a new personality — dark and jittery — and a new, much bigger body, too. Mantel's ghosts are the ones that prevented her from ever settling on a version of herself that felt right: her stepfather, the daughter she never had, and nameless remnants of lives she never led. In Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel attempts “to seize the copyright in myself.” She does so with a fine ear and a furious intelligence.
16. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)
In simple and expressive lines, Satrapi’s graphic memoir tells the story of her childhood in Tehran during the turbulent years that saw the overthrow of the Shah, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the ensuing Iran-Iraq war. Satrapi’s child’s-eye view of the revolution and the rise of fundamentalism, as well as of her brutal family history, achieves a stark and shocking impact. Just as powerful, however, are the moments of childhood: the warmth of her family, her complicated relationship with religion, and her penchant for challenging hypocrisy. Personal yet political, humorous yet haunting, Persepolis is a wholly original book, and an essential read.
17. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
Joan Didion, an exemplar of cool, brilliant aloofness, unravels in this troubled and meditative memoir about the sudden loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the frightening illness of her daughter, Quintana. The Year of Magical Thinking explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of marriage and an account of loss that will speak to anyone who has ever loved and lost. A stunning book of electric honesty and passion, Didion’s memoir has quickly become a classic on grief and mourning.
18. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)
Alison Bechdel’s darkly funny memoir, told with the help of her gothic artwork, is an elaborately layered account of life and artifice that sprung from her father’s suicide. Bechdel’s father was a distant parent, a historic preservation expert, a funeral home director, a high school English teacher, and a closeted homesexual hiding erotic relationships with his students (as well as the family babysitter). Ultimately, Bechdel herself comes out as a lesbian — a revelation she renders as both funny and heartbreaking. Fun Home is a deeply moving coming-of-age story that swims along literary lines, honoring the works of authors who nourished Bechdel, including Kate Millet, Proust, and Oscar Wilde.
19. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (2007)
Is this how wars are fought now — by children, hopped up on drugs and wielding AK-47s? Beah’s memoir stands as a vivid testament to his time as one of 300,000 nameless and faceless child soldiers around the world. When Sierra Leone descended into a brutal civil war, Ishmael was inducted into a government corps of child soldiers. As Beah takes us through a life of battles, promotions, and unfathomable acts of cruelty, we almost forget he is just a boy. It’s only when we catch a glimpse of his childish innocence that the horror and despair of the situation hits home. A Long Way Gone admonishes us to recognise how war and violence consumes everything in society, especially children.
20. Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010)
In 1967, Patti Smith — a young, aspiring poet — headed to New York with nothing in her purse. She found a job in a bookstore, where she met budding artist Robert Maplethorpe. Equally inspired and determined, their chance meeting led to a romance and a lifelong friendship that would carry each to international success they’d never dreamed of. Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, flows through downtown New York in all its energy and squalor, from the Chelsea Hotel to Max’s Kansas City, and follows an endless supply of captivating subjects — literary lights, musicians and artists — to whom she is genuinely devoted. Even for someone with no interest in the renaissance woman of the punks, this beautifully written memoir is a masterpiece of social observation and self-scrutiny.
21. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
“Why be happy when you could be normal?” is the question Jeanette’s adoptive mother, Mrs Winterson, asked her daughter as she evicted her for taking up with a second girlfriend. This abusive, Pentecostal giantess will be familiar to readers of Jeanette’s 1985 autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which Jeanette now calls a cover story: a painful past written over and repainted. In Why Be Happy she tells readers how this past rose to haunt her, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. Turbulent and moving, but wriggling with humor, this has to be one of the best memoirs about the search for somewhere to belong.
22. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
Deraniyagala’s memoir opens inside a literal wave: the tsunami that swept onto the southern coast of Sri Lanka in 2004, killing her husband, her two sons, and her parents. Deraniyagala miraculously survived, but the loss plunged her into darkness. In the first months following the disaster, she had to be constantly protected against the danger of harming herself as she grappled with the horror of her reality. Wave is the engrossing and poised account of grief that follows Deraniyagala on her journey back through the life she’s mourning. Gradually, she learns to find the difficult balance between the unbearable reminders of her loss and the need to keep her family alive in her memory — and begins to find some light herself through the very act of writing
23. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013)
In this harrowing memoir, novelist Jesmyn Ward pays tribute to five young black men in her life who died over the span of just four years, lost to suicide, drugs, or accidents. She describes with tenderness the lives these men lived before they were devoured by her Mississippi hometown, “pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism.” Their fates twine with her own childhood of instability and hardship — then later, the survivor’s guilt that washes over her in the wake of their premature deaths. This deeply felt and heartbreaking memoir is also a powerful investigation into the terrible risks inherent in simply trying to live as a young black man in the rural south. But Ward never allows her subjects to become symbolic: instead, she renders them individual and irreplaceable.
24. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
Since childhood, Helen Macdonald has been obsessed with birds of prey. So when her father dies suddenly on a London street, she seeks to escape her grief by training one of nature’s most vicious predators — a goshawk. With unflinching honesty, Macdonald grapples with the kind of thoughts most of us reserve for 4am: the finality of death, the paralysis of self-doubt, the loss of the natural world, and… the raptor lurking in the other room. She comes to understand that her bond with the hawk is partly due to a desire to find her father, as hawks are often thought to be messengers to a world beyond. But as the bird matures into a confident hunter, Macdonald makes a new discovery: that moving forward means leaving things behind. This beautiful, erudite, and very British book takes its rightful place among the greatest memoirs of all time.
25. Negroland by Margo Jefferson (2015)
More a state of mind than a physical location, Jefferson’s title refers to “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Jefferson was born in 1947 into upper-crust black Chicago — a world of exclusive networks and clubs, where skin color and hair texture were relentlessly evaluated alongside scholarly and professional achievements. They saw themselves as representatives of a “Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians,” and insisted on exceptionalism. A brilliant, freewheeling memoir, that has been compared to jazz, Negroland opens an unflinching, introspective eye on the American black bourgeoisie mindset.
26. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015)
In one of the best memoirs of the 21st century, Nelson applies literary and analytical theory to her own love story with fluidly-gendered artist Harry Dodge. Told non-linearly in brief, loaded fragments, The Argonauts chronicles the way Nelson’s body is made “more ‘female’” by pregnancy while Dodge’s body — transformed by surgery and testosterone — becomes “more and more ‘male.’” However, to confine bodies to these labels is reductive, Nelson goes on to explain. Offering fresh and fierce reflections on queer desire, queer family making, and the limits of the gender binary, as well as on motherhood and feminism, this is a timely and hugely enlightening read.
27. Barbarian Days by William Finnegan (2015)
New Yorker writer William Finnegan has been roaming the world’s outer reaches for over 40 years, chronicling everything from drug cartels in Mexico to billionaire mining tycoons in Australia. The constant thread throughout all of these journeys? Waves. Barbarian Days is a soaring ode to his one great love and obsession — surfing. To devotees, surfing is much more than a sport: it’s a demanding study, a joy-drenched, adrenaline-fueled addiction, and a passionate way of life. Finnegan is a magnificent writer, as adept at conjuring waves from memory as he is at describing the friendships between disciples of the ocean. This account of his full, wind-chapped life is one of the most outstanding sporting memoirs you’ll encounter.
28. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing his training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air was written in the final 22 months of his life and published posthumously. Facing his own mortality just as he and his wife are bringing new life into the world, Kalanithi is forced to examine a question that “possessed” him as a medical student: “What, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life?” Deftly identifying universal truths amidst emotional devastation, this is a devastating yet inspiring memoir about terminal illness, and a profoundly rewarding read.
29. Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017)
In Hunger, Roxane Gay casts an insightful eye on her young life — including the devastating abuse that acted as the catalyst for her weight gain — and brings readers into her present: the reality of living as a sizable woman in today’s world. By bravely confronting her emotional and psychological struggles, Gay taps into our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health, and elicits a compassionate response. Writing with vulnerability and authority, she explores the tension between desire and denial, self-comfort and self-care, and shows us how to be decent to ourselves, and to one another.
30. Heavy by Kiese Laymon (2018)
The final installment on our list of the 30 best memoirs, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy explores what the weight of a lifetime of secrets and lies does to a black body, a black family, and a nation teetering on moral collapse. This gorgeous and gutting book begins with Laymon’s childhood in Mississippi and continues through twenty-five years of abuse, anguish, sex, writing, and fraught relations with both his family and himself. In this fearless memoir, Laymon illuminates national failures with a personal narrative, reflecting with piercing intellect on both the state of American society and his own experience growing up within it.
Want to read about more extraordinary people? Check out our post on the 30 best biographies! Or, if you’ve been inspired to change your life, we’ve got you covered with 35 inspirational books that’ll do just that!