Speak, Memory , Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s memoir is an account of his childhood and the years before his emigration to the United States in 1940 — but that’s not quite right. More importantly, the book is an account of Nabokov’s art as much as it is an example of it, a study of the themes and symbols that make up his mind as they make up the book. As ever, Nabokov’s prose is unimpeachable, brilliant, devastating, and his almost petulant, playful manner makes even lists of relatives seem fascinating.
The Liars’ Club , Mary Karr
Karr’s funny, terrifying, scalpel-sharp first book was one of the first to open the contemporary memoir floodgates: yes, the public screamed, wept, whispered. Yes, we want more of this. You will feel the same way as this incomparable firebrand leads you through her swampy childhood. Lucky for you, if you’re a first time reader, you’ll have two more of Karr’s memoirs to go when you’re through. They could have made this list too, but we’ve got to give other writers a fighting chance, you know?
The Year of Magical Thinking , Joan Didion
In this heartbreaking memoir, Official National Treasure Joan Didion writes about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the “magical thinking” that followed: “We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss,” she writes. “We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” Already a master of writing about loss, this memoir is an essential addition to Didion’s oeuvre.
Maus , Art Spiegelman
Though there are many deeply affecting and wonderful Holocaust memoirs that might have made this list, our favorite will forever be Maus, with its harrowing story wrapped in Spiegelman’s pitch-perfect illustrations. You’d think that imagining the characters as animals would make the horrors of the story seem less intense, more palatable, but in fact it’s the opposite — in true Understanding Comics style, the iconic, blank faces of the mice only allow us to put ourselves in their shoes that much more easily.
The Woman Warrior , Maxine Hong Kingston
In this beautiful, bitter memoir, Kingston blends traditional Chinese folk tales — her mother’s “talk-stories” — with her often difficult experiences growing up Chinese American in Stockton, California. What is a ghost? What is a woman’s worth? Who is she? Kingston’s prose burns on the page as she investigates.
A Moveable Feast , Ernest Hemingway
Published posthumously in 1964, this memoir is made up of Hemingway’s collected accounts of his time as an expat writer in the 1920s, largely in Paris, hanging out with Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, Ezra Pound, and a host of other characters, all engaged with padding their now-fat legacies. As spare and simply lovely as his novels, it’s enough to make any aspiring writer want to pack up and move to the city of light.
Darkness Visible , William Styron
One of the books that led the memoir charge, Styron’s candid, elegant 1990 memoir of his serious depression — and recovery — is both an extremely personal story of exploring the depths of despair and a meditation on depression in a wider cultural context. It’s still one of the best things we’ve ever read on the topic.
This Boy’s Life , Tobias Wolff
In Wolff’s elegantly rendered, captivating memoir, he describes a childhood spent wandering the country with his itinerant mother, on the run from an abusive ex-boyfriend — until she meets and marries an equally unsuitable man, with whom the teenaged Wolff engages in furious battle. But he’s also fighting his own battle of self-invention. Darkly comic, deeply piercing and as satisfying as any novel, This Boy’s Life is an irrefutable classic.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , Maya Angelou
This memoir, the first in six volumes of autobiography, is a time-honored classic for a reason. Poetic and incredibly inspiring, the reader watches Angelou develop from a victim to a confident, capable young woman as she learns to process and deal with the racism of the world around her. With her younger self often referred to as “a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America,” Angelou has undoubtedly changed many lives with this book.
Homage to Catalonia , George Orwell
Orwell’s gripping account of his time in the Spanish Civil War, told with his trademark journalist’s wink, is one of his best. Unflinching and honest, Orwell approaches his experience without agenda, recording things as he sees them. As Philip Mairet once said, “It shows us the heart of innocence that lies in revolution; also the miasma of lying that, far more than the cruelty, takes the heart out of it.”