The best memoirs I’ve read: a list
When writing a new book I often start by making a reading list. It’s by reading books in the genre you’re writing in that you is the only way to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the form, and how to solve certain challenges.
With the release of The Ghost of My Father (read the free excerpt here – PDF), it was useful to review the best, or most important, memoirs I’ve read.
- Down and Out In London and Paris, George Orwell. Technically this is a work of fiction, but it was clearly based on Orwell’s real experiences. His style was very influential for future journalists who chose to write in a first person style. Orwell’s ability to describe situations and environments is first rate, and he excels at concision. One of my favorite books, NewJack: Guarding Sing Sing By Conover, is in the same lineage (though more journalistic than strictly memoir form). These books heavily influenced The Year Without Pants and the new book too.
- The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. For my purposes I needed to study the telling of tragic personal stories and this book has become the canonical reference. Didion’s husband and best friend died suddenly and the book documents the year that follows. Didion is cerebral, the camera angle of her narrative is strictly in her head, or over her shoulders, providing a more intellectual narrative than many memoirs do. It is a solid book, but I was underwhelmed by it for reasons I can’t explain. It felt repetitive to me, which to be fair is perhaps an accurate reflection of what she experienced (that’s the challenge with memoir – the most honest telling of real life stories often don’t fit into convenient narrative arcs or patterns).
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard. If you’re not captivated in the first few pages, give up, not just on this book but on reading in general. I’ve read this book several times and each time I’m surprised by how truly breathtaking her prose is, and I’m not a prose junky. I will never be the kind of writer she is is. She’s like Updike at his best, able to wind paragraphs of description and perspective around a single moment or image and leave you wanting more and more. The book demonstrates how a memoir can take one simple trip, act, decision, or idea, and develop it into an entire world.
- Get In The Van, Henry Rollins. The raw, honest stories of life in a rising, but fledgling punk band in the 1980s is something to behold. There is no pretense here, in the writing or in the life he led. The simplicity of his approach, both in the structure of the book (it’s a journal) and the entries (a record of places they performed, and encounters on the road) reveals how little artifice a memoir needs to function. Many of Rollin’s books are disappointing, especially his poetry, but this book shines and stands up as a testament to how simple a good book can be.
- Nothing to Declare, Mary Morris. I read this book 15 years ago ago, long before I decided to be a writer. I’d never read a book that was simply a person telling a story about what was happening to them, and for that to be interesting. I’ve read several of her books and enjoyed them all. This in part gave me the confidence to become a writer. The idea that a good book wasn’t about extreme situations or great drama. It was about being honest, being thoughtful, and applying the craft of storytelling. Bukowski and Henry Miller were also huge influences for me in the idea that simply being brave enough to be honest is exceedingly rare and can make for powerful writing all on its own.
- This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolfe. I read many of the classics memoirs and this was one of the few I enjoyed reading. It tells the story of Wolfe’s difficult childhood. The themes echoed the stories I wanted to tell in The Ghost of My Father, and Wolfe tells his story with a lack of pretense and judgement. I knew I wanted to be closer to Didion in perspective, with commentary on what happened in my life, both what I thought about it then and what I think about it now. But Wolfe avoids this. He writes as if it were a screenplay, making few overt judgements about anything, leaving it to the reader to decide for themselves what was good, bad, right or wrong.
- Born Standing Up, Steve Martin. Famous people writing about their lives is often dreadfully predictable, but Martin is a fantastic writer. This book focuses on his early years performing for empty theaters, and how he found his way, through work and experimentation, to excellence. Its charm is how foolish he reveals himself to be, a naive kid working oh so hard to figure out show business. “Precision creates movement” is one of my favorite quotes.
- Chronicles, Bob Dylan. This is an odd choice in a way, as he gets away with things here purely because of his fame. He jumps through time, abandons stories, repeats stories and generally seems to be teasing and playing with us readers. But there is a charm here. An unwillingness to follow convention and to play with the lines of storytelling and narrative. If you know his career it’s no surprise his book takes this approach, but it’s a worthy counterpoint to more literal memoirs that follow strict boundaries of form.
- Broken Music, Sting. Like me Sting had a difficult relationship with his father, and the album The Soul Cages, is essentially dedicated to him (most notably, the wonderful sad Why Should I Cry For You). I put it on my list for that reason and wasn’t disappointed. Sting is smart and well read (he was an English teacher while playing in bands at night), and the book is empty of most the arrogance he’s earned a reputation for. It focuses on the early years of his professional career, before the Police, and the many mistakes and chance occurrences that led to his rise to fame.
- The Night Country, Loren Eisley. Like Nothing to Declare, I read this long before I became a writer. Eisley has always been a big influence, particularly his ability to blend personal stories with professional observations, a theme that runs through all of my books. The Night Country in particular expresses a love of the mystery of life and how important mystery, and the curiosity to explore it in all it’s forms, is at the heart of an interesting life. If you have any interest in science and literature Eisley is a rewarding read.
- Diary of A Young Girl, Anne Frank. I’ve read this book several times. There’s something so simple and clear about her writing, and the fact that you know the end all along changes the way you read it. Credit should go to her father as well for editing together her journal into such a simple, short, powerful book.
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers. I think of this book often for both it’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a fantastic and tough story, told well and honestly. Where the book struggles is Egger’s insistence on being extra clever. There are footnotes, and footnotes, and self-references, and it’s just too much at times – a brilliant writer who is too self-conscious to just tell the story without commenting on how he’s telling the story. I haven’t read this book in years and I’d like to read it again to see how my opinion has changed.
- Night of The Gun, David Carr. This book turns the form of memoir on it’s ear, as NYT reporter Carr uses his journalism skills to tell the story of his drug addiction and the impact it had on him and his family. I don’t know of any other memoir that was so dedicated to finding ‘the truth’ and telling it (Full review).
Famous memoirs I didn’t enjoy:
- Stop Time, by Frank Conroy, which I abandoned after 20 pages for sheer lack of interest – it didn’t cohere for me at all. Memoirs are a most tricky form to write in. It could be everything that didn’t work for me here, worked for many of the people who loved the book.
- Maus: A survivors tale, Art Spiegelman – perhaps my expectations were too high, but I struggled to stay interested. Mind you I’m of Jewish heritage, have a strong interest in WWII and like graphic novels. There was something about the plotting and the characterizations I struggled to get into. Perhaps I need to give it another try.
- Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris. I’ve tried many times and I’m just not a Sedaris fan. I like the idea of him. I do respect the way he writes and constructs stories. But I don’t like this writing much. There’s something mildly cloying that turns me off in most of the stories I’ve tried to read, including Me Talk Pretty.
- I also summarized my lessons learned on writing a memoir here.
I just finished A Woman in Amber. Hard to read because it was so sad…but gripping because of the detailed first-hand, raw account of growing up during a war (and how it forever shaped her choices in life).
There are so many memoirs – which is informative for people thinking of writing them. There’s no universal answer for what makes a good or bad memoir, or which kinds of stories will matter to people.
But you haven’t read my memoir: ‘Why I Married a Murderer and How I Survived the Divorce‘…. its a hoot!
I reserve the right to update the list :)
Two of my favorite memoirs are actually graphic memoirs.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a gorgeous, funny and sometimes heartbreaking account of her childhood in the wake of the revolution in Iran. It was the first graphic novel I read, and I started out skeptical about the medium; how could a comic come close to the richness of great prose? I was quickly cured of any doubts, and learned that one extremely simple drawing could bring me to tears.
More recently, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me by Ellen Forney reminded me of the power of graphic storytelling. Seattle cartoonist Forney describes the experience of living with bipolar disorder, from her initial diagnosis through the long and circuitous path to an effective treatment strategy. I loved her disciplined investigation of the relationship between bipolar and creativity, and her personal reflection on the connections between her condition, her work and her self. I was awed by the power of a page of the simplest line drawings to depict depression more accurately and viscerally than any words I’ve read. Marbles tackled a challenging subject in a way that was remarkably informative, personal and hopeful.
Terrie: Thank you for mentioning graphic novels! I love them, and although I wouldn’t strictly call them memoirs I’ve read dozens of them are they are among my favorite books. I’ll have think about which ones have impacted me the most. Thanks for commenting.
For Sting’s book, what worked for me was to barely skim the first chapter (I didn’t like it) and then read the rest word for enthralling word.
Memoirs are so personal it’s very hard to recommend them without knowing something about the person you’re recommending them too. When I was younger I was a huge fan of the Police, so I had a secondary interest in Sting’s story for that reason alone. I do think independent of being interested in his music it holds up well, but it’s hard to objective about such things.
I assume I was clear, but just in case I wasn’t: Sting’s book was enthralling—It really added to my life…. I liked his gaining competence, and, I regret to say, I could really relate to his family.
I’m not a huge memoir reader yet, but your list will be a good starting place. Thank you. One that I have read and really enjoyed was Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”. I;ve always enjoyed his story telling though, but as you commented earlier they are hard to recommend without knowing the person you are recommending them too.
I read Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods and enjoyed it, but haven’t read any of his others. I admire him as a writer as he has taken on many different kinds of writing, something you rarely see. I’m hoping to follow in his footsteps (pun intended).
Katherine Graham’s Personal History is worth reading as well. I second the recommendation above for Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, it’s amazing!
Persepolis was well done but it didn’t strike me personally – memoirs are so personal and subjective. I’d certainly recommend Persepolis and understand why people respond to it, but its not a favorite.
I’ll take a look at Katherine Graham’s Personal History. Thanks.
Nice list Scott. Congrats on the release of your book.
Thank you sir.
Thanks for this list Scott. I’d been looking for some good ideas of biographies to read.
Personally I enjoyed Richard Branson’ Losing my Virginity which is a light book but otherwise a page turner. Bestseller material, but an enjoyable one no less.
Having read this list and other posts of yours, feel its good time for you to see and read the world beyond “western”. You the type of person who will enjoy and benefit from this experience. This collection is so “western”.
If you decide to go at Maus again, my suggestion is: read it in small bits: a chapter at a time and set it down for a while. Maus was originally published in small chunks. I think sometimes it’s too tempting with graphic novels collected from periodically published work to simply read through from beginning to end—the pages can turn much faster than prose novels. As a result it’s possible for the pacing to suffer compared to the experience of reading twenty-four (or however many) pages every couple of months.
Of course, maybe it just wasn’t to your taste. I don’t mean to demean your personal judgment or say that if you didn’t like it that you’re “doing it wrong” or anything like that. Just a suggestion in case you do give Maus another try, as you suggested you might. (I found Moby Dick impenetrable until I found an edition hand-set in 18pt type. It forced me to read it more slowly and I loved it. I’ve since come to the conclusion that it was intended to be read aloud and in relatively short segments—the 19th Century’s version of sitting around the TV after dinner.)
Thanks for the suggestion. You never know what little thing changes why you like or don’t like a book, or a movie, or just about anything. Part of it might be I’m ethnically Jewish and am perhaps all too familiar with holocaust literature, who knows.
Really great list and great descriptions. Thanks for sharing these with your readers. I recently read a very inspirational memoir called “Don’t Stop Dreaming: Sex, Death, Fear, Bigotry, and Greed: A Scientist-Physician’s Odyssey at the Dawn of AIDS” by Dr. Russel Tomar (http://russtomarmd.com/). The AIDS epidemic has been downplayed significantly in the last decade. Unfortunately, it is still a very prevalent and real threat. This book is written by someone who has truly been on the cutting edge of this disease since the beginning and really offers a unique perspective on the subject. It is very informative but also very personal, highly recommended.
Such a great list that I am working my way through! Anne Frank’s story is up there with my favourite so far, a truly powerful read. Thanks for this, can’t wait to read more recommendations & your book too.
My favorite is Bill Brysons’ ‘ The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’ …..talk about fun! He narrated growing up in the 1950’s in the most funny way possible.
Am also writing my own memoir. Am almost done with 65,000 words put down!
Hi Felix, I work for a personal memoir company called Story Terrace. We would love to help you finish your memoir!
Please get in touch with us! http://www.storyterrace.com