Memoir is a wide-ranging genre. It’s not a biography — the story of a person’s life told by someone else — or an autobiography — a person telling their own life story. A memoir is the story of a specific time or theme or experience of a person’s life. It’s a deep meditation on something like growing up poor, or having a debilitating mental illness, or living in a racist America. Here, we dig into some of the most influential memoirs of all time.
The craft has evolved over time, with famous writers being the only ones in the space early on, like Ernest Hemingway writing about his life in Paris in A Moveable Feast, or the poet Mary Karr recalling her childhood with an alcoholic parent in The Liars’ Club. There are vital historical texts, like The Diary of Anne Frank, or Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, that are almost memoir but not quite — the pieces of a diary and the stories of someone else, respectively.
Many of these memoirs were turned into movies and became cultural icons. Books like Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert inspire people to follow in the author’s footsteps of discovery. Others, like Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling, let people into the inner worlds of celebrities — they’re just like us! Each is deeply influential in their own way.
I’d be remiss not to address the elephants in the memoir room: A Million Little Pieces by James Frey and Lucky by Alice Sebold.
The former was a 2006 Oprah’s Book Club pick, touted as a riveting memoir about the 23-year-old’s life of crime, drug abuse, and rehabilitation. After fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, a magazine investigation found much of the book to be fabricated after they couldn’t find Frey’s mugshot. Police records didn’t match his story, and Frey later admitted to embellishing key facts.
Sebold’s Lucky made headlines last year when the man she accused of the rape at the center of her story was exonerated after 40 years in prison. An executive producer adapting the memoir to film noticed that the book and the script didn’t line up, so he hired a private investigator to look at the evidence. The story surrounding the trial, and the young Black man she accused, felt flimsy. Because it was. The memoir was pulled from distribution and will be reissued with appropriate changes.
Okay, now let’s get to the books.
The Most Influential Memoirs
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
One of the most popular memoirs of all time is Angela’s Ashes. It’s the story of Frank McCourt’s childhood growing up desperately poor in Ireland. His mother can’t feed the children because his father drinks all his earnings away. But it’s not all bad; his dad teaches him to love stories as he tells tales of angels and saviors. Woven throughout the heartbreak is compassion and heart.
The memoir was adapted into film in 1999 and into an Irish stage musical in 2017.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
George Orwell takes us on a journey through poverty in Paris and London, where he meets all kinds of people in squalor just trying to get by. Down and Out in Paris and London is a scathing look at the failures of a society that places all its value in money.
Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover’s memoir shook the world when it came out in 2018, and has since spent more than 125 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List. In a time when many people had lost faith in democracy, Educated sheds light on what can happen in isolated communities without government. Westover grew up in a survivalist home and was homeschooled until 17. She decided to study hard for college entrance exams, and once there, her entire world opened up. Educated is a moving tale of reinvention.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel’s father ran a funeral home, which their dysfunctional family called the Fun Home. In this graphic memoir, Bechdel details her complicated relationship with her father. In college, she came out as a lesbian, and soon after discovered that her father is also gay. And then he was dead, leaving her with even more questions about the enigma who raised her.
Fun Home was made into a Tony Award-winning musical in 2015.
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
Jeanette Walls’s life story feels impossible. Her upbringing was chaotic, with dysfunctional parents — an alcoholic father and a stubborn mother. The family bounced from home to home, state to state, while Jeanette and her siblings ran wild without the reins of concerned guardians. The Glass Castle is simultaneously beautiful and infuriating, and one of the more well-known and most influential memoirs of the last few decades.
In 2017, it became a feature film with Brie Larson in the role of Jeanette.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai’s story is unforgettable. As a 15-year-old girl, she was shot in the face by the Taliban on the bus home from school, all because she had the audacity to stand up for her right to an education. Once she recovered, she shared her story far and wide, becoming a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
There’s a reason Maya Angelou’s memoir is a classic. Her story is poetic, powerful, hopeful, and painful: She and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother as kids, left feeling abandoned by their mother. Add in American racism and abuse, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will stay with you for the rest of your life. It is one of the more poignant books often assigned for high school English classes.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
In Kitchen Confidential, Chef Anthony Bourdain spilled all the dirty secrets he learned in 25 years of working in the culinary trade, chock full of sex, drugs, and drama. Restaurant kitchens are gritty and gross, but they’re where the best chefs get their start.
The book is an expansion on his 1999 essay in the New Yorker, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” Bourdain said he was inspired by Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris in London, with its behind-the-scenes look at restaurant dishwashers.
After Kitchen Confidential, food memoirs blew up, with food memoir now a popular subgenre. It also launched Bourdain’s public career, with several more food memoirs and food travel shows on CNN and the Food Network.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Chanel Miller was known only as Emily Doe as she battled her rapist, Brock Turner, in court. With Know My Name, she gets to tell her harrowing story and exist in the world freely as herself. While only a few years old, Know My Name is without a doubt one of the most iconic and influential memoirs on this list.
It spent many weeks on various bestseller lists and won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Over the span of five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life to drugs, accidents, and suicide. As she grieved each loss, she questioned why, and realized the common thread between them was where they came from. Living in poverty in the South in a racist country takes its toll, and for Ward, it is gutting.
Men We Reaped won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for nonfiction in 2014.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson
Margo Jefferson grew up among the Black elite, where everyone distanced themselves from white people but also from Black people not in their community. Negroland is her take on race, sex, and American culture in a world full of contradictions.
Negroland won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize in 2016.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were forced to Auschwitz concentration camp. Night is a brutal reminder of what evil looks like — and one of the most influential memoirs of human history. It’s the first in a trilogy, with Dawn and Day following, was translated into 30 languages, and is one of the most iconic works of Holocaust literature.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, Marjane Satrapi experienced the effects of war and political repression first-hand. Her clothes, her music, and her interests were policed by her parents in order to avoid trouble. Persepolis is told in black-and-white comics, which makes this memoir even more iconic. It’s popularly assigned in English classes and also has been banned several times in schools.
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Prozac Nation is one of the most influential memoirs about mental illness, often credited as one of the first modern memoirs in the wide-ranging genre we know today. Elizabeth Wurtzel bares it all in her memoir full of breakdowns, therapy, addiction, and suicide attempts with powerful writing that brings readers into the throes of mood disorders.
It was turned into a 2001 film starring Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi brought seven of her female students into her home every week to read forbidden Western classics. While the Islamic Revolution raged outside, these women came together, removed their veils, and found themselves in the words of writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Reading Lolita in Tehran is the moving story of these women and their stand of resistance.
It spent over 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List and has been translated into 32 languages.
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
This memoir is absolutely wild. Augusten Burroughs was 12 when his poet mother sent him to live with her psychiatrist. There, he nestled in with a motley crew of characters, including a pedophile who lived in the backyard shed, and grew up in squalor under the strangest of circumstances.
In 2006, it became a film, with Alec Baldwin as Augusten’s father.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi was nearly finished with his decades of training to become a neurosurgeon when he received the diagnosis: stage IV lung cancer. At once, his perspective changes as he meditates on what makes a meaningful life. Kalanithi died in 2015, while writing When Breath Becomes Air, and his story is life-changing.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
A completely inexperienced hiker decides to take on the Pacific Crest Trail — 2,653 miles from the Mojave Desert up trough Washington State — in the wake of losing her mother and her marriage. Cheryl Strayed’s story is incredible on its own, but add in her impeccable writing, and Wild is a true winner.
Wild became a film in 2014, starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
One of the most influential — and heartbreaking — memoirs is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. In the span of a week, she watches her daughter fall horribly ill and be put into an induced coma. Days later, her husband has a massive, fatal coronary. In the year following, she meditates on grief and the loss of her 40-year relationship.
The Year of Magical Thinking is the best grief memoir there is. Didion adapted the book to a Broadway play, and it toured the world in various forms for nearly a decade.
Whew. That was tough. Don’t come at me for not including your favorite memoir; this is a list of the most influential, not the best, and honestly, I had to cut so many of my own favorites from this list.
If you’re looking for more of the most influential books of a certain genre, be sure to check out these lists of most influential horror novels, romance novels, fantasy books, historical fiction, and sci-fi books.