Books are one of the best ways to connect with all the best, worst and most transformative parts of humanity. Through stories we can explore what it means to be human, and all of the beautiful, messy, heartbreaking and joyful moments we experience on earth. Whether it’s a book about relationships helping you through a rough patch in your marriage, a parenting book that teaches you what your toddler really needs, or a juicy escapist sci fi book that helps you unwind — books are magic. They’ve been providing entertainment since the days when the phrase “streaming service” would’ve garnered confused looks, and they’re still one of the best ways to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time. One of the most direct, applicable and accessible ways to connect with another human through a book is by reading a memoir.
Rather than a story that both you and the author are removed from, a memoir is a lifetime of knowledge, experience and wisdom distilled down into a few hundred digestible pages. It’s like sitting in front of someone for hours as they tell you their life story. And for most of the books on this list, that person is a legend you heard about in history class or have been reading about in newspapers for years. A rich memoir can help you gain a new perspective, learn more about the world we’re all living on and hopefully get to know someone on an intimate level. They’re beautiful, rich books and these are just some of my favorites. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of the best memoirs we should all be reading in 2021.
1. A Promised Land
This book was published at the end of last year and already has a 5-star rating on Amazon with almost 90,000 reviews. I’ve read it, and it’s very well written. He has a lot to say about his presidency and gives you an inside look at what was happening for him mentally and emotionally during some of his biggest, most headline-worthy moments in the White House. He starts at the beginning, with his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii and quickly ushers you through his younger years all the way to his senate race in Illinois. He’s introspective, honest, funny, very wise and incredibly poised. I thoroughly enjoyed my hours spend with good ol’ Barack, and I think you will too.
If I could only bring one book with me to a deserted island, this one is near the top of the list. Tina Fey is a comedic legend and an entertainment legend, whose memoir Bossypants takes the reader through her budding years as a young member of a traveling improv troupe all the way up to her creation of Emmy-award-winning TV show 30 Rock. It’s hilarious, but also touches on very real-world, hefty topics like sexism in the workplace, motherhood, fatherhood and the grit it takes to be an entertainer. She’s lovely, and very smart. Highly recommend taking a look at this one regardless of who you are or where you work.
3. The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company
Bob Iger is a legend in the business world, and his memoir is one of the best business books available for read for today’s corporate landscape. He became CEO of Disney in 2005 during a difficult period for the company, and over the course of 15 years he made some of the best acquisitions the business world had ever seen. These decisions turned Disney into the largest, most sought-after and successful media company in the world, valued at just about five times the amount it was when he started. He knows his stuff, to say the least, and in this memoir he shares the lessons he learned during his tenure. If you’re in the business world or are a leader in any sense, this is a must-read.
4. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah’s backstory is fascinating. He was born to a mixed race couple when his white Swiss father and black Xhosa mother being in a union was illegal under apartheid law in South Africa. His mother had to hide him from the government for much of his early life, and he details his childhood under tyrannical white rule. Once they were freed by the government overthrow, their story really begins. This memoir details his restless, mischievous childhood and gives insight into how he became the wise, witty, unflinchingly honest and intelligent human he is today. You’ll gain insight into the mind of one of America’s most influential and respectable late-night hosts, and learn a bit about another part of the world along the way.
5. Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris’ memoirs are essential reading if only for how gut-bustingly funny they are. In this book, he shares another collection of short stories about living in France and trying to learn a new language (hence the title.) He’s never afraid to embrace the dark and light parts of life in his writing and his comedy, and this book is no different. You should really check out all of his books including Naked and Holidays on Ice.
6. Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson
This touching story of a young man, Mitch, who reconnects with Morrie, a mentor and former professor of his, during the last months of his life contains life’s essence at its most pure. He chronicles their visits and the final “lessons” he learned from him during that special time. This is the 20th anniversary edition of this book, and Mitch Albom shares his reflections on Morrie’s life 12 million copies later, and how much they still impact him more than 10 years later.
7. Night by Elie Wiesel
If you’re going to read only one book about the holocaust (although you should probably read more than one), this should be it. Night is Elie Wiesel’s horrifying account of being a teenager in the Nazi death camps, and is required reading for everyone who wants a deeper understanding of WWII. This book was translated by his wife and frequent translator, Marion Wiesel, who brings his Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning novel as close as possible to his original purpose. This memoir explores the power of Night and evokes one man’s quest to make sure the world never forgets how inhumane humans can be.
8. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Want to go for a hike? If you live in the city and are craving nature, this memoir by Bill Bryson is a great avenue for fast-tracking yourself to the woods. And if you live in rural suburbs and want to hear about one of the most stunning and famously breathtaking trails in the U.S this is the book to pick up. The Appalachian Trail goes from Georgia all the way to Maine and has some of the most beautiful mountains, forests and lakes you’ll see in the continental United States. Bryson walks you through the history and ecology of the trail, and introduces you to some of the trail’s most famous inhabitants along the way (bears). At the end of this 400 pages you’ll want to strike on a pair of boots, I guarantee it.
Michelle Obama is a favorite of mine, for obvious reasons, and after you read this book she’ll be a favorite of yours too. As the first African American First Lady of the United States of America she captured everyone’s attention as a powerful advocate for women and girls, as well as the health of families across the country. She’s a seminal figure in the feminist movement for her strength, humility, real-world practical optimism and sass. She’s also a gifted storyteller with a background that only strengthens the reasons to admire her. She takes you on a journey from her humble beginnings on the South Side of Chicago all the way to Princeton where she reckoned with being one of the only people of color in largely white spaces. Her book is deeply personal, beautifully written and emphasizes how important it is for everyone, regardless of who you are, to continually evolve.
10. Dry: A Memoir
Augusten Burroughs is a recovering alcoholic, who details in Dry that the most difficult part of rehab wasn’t the dim fluorescent lighting, paper slippers or reckoning with a habit that was slowly killing him. It was returning to his Manhattan life afterwards, sober. Through examining himself, he learns some pretty powerful lessons he shares in his New York Times bestselling book that’s as funny as it is heartbreaking. It’s all the parts of life we’ve all come in contact with — love, loss and a never-ending appreciation for Starbucks.
11. Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir
Frank McCourt’s childhood is poverty in its most brutal forms. He was born in Depression-era Brooklyn and raised in Limerick, Ireland. His father rarely worked and drank his wages when he did, and his mother Angela couldn’t afford to feed her own children. While his life experiences are heartbreaking, the did fuel something powerful for Frank and his future: a story. After everything he went through — from gathering coal from the roadside for a fire to wearing rags for diapers — he lived to tell the tale, and it turned out to be a Pulitzer-Prize, #1 New York Times bestselling one at that.
12. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
This book goes beyond memoir status and has become a classic in the American literature lexicon. It was first published in 1845, when Douglass had just been freed from slavery and was legally allowed to read and write. He details the shocking horrors of slavery and his eloquence propelled him into being one of the most influential leaders in American history. He was an advocate for everyone as an abolitionist, women’s rights activist and journalist, and his memoir is something everyone should read throughout their lifelong education.
13. Educated: A Memoir
Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist community in the mountains of Idaho and didn’t receive an education until her 17th birthday. Because her family was so isolated, there was no one to make sure she got an education or lived in a safe environment. Her quest for knowledge ended up taking her to Harvard and Cambridge University, and to writing one of the most powerful books that’s a #1 New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe bestseller. Her book begs the question of how much we give up when we venture beyond the people we love, and how hard it can be to return home.
14. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
He was the powerfully angry counter to Dr. Martin Luther King’s passive resistance, and his chronicle of the struggle is a classic of modern American literature. It captures the civil rights era of the 60’s viscerally, and is a painful, beautiful and crucial book to read. This autobiography tells the story of him and his movement from his perspective, and is required reading for everyone in today’s era of racial reckoning.
15. Men We Reaped: A Memoir
Jesmyn Ward lost five young men close to her in five years to drugs, accidents and other “bad luck” that black men living in poverty in the south tend to experience. All this death and suffering led her to ask the question: why? This book is her answer, and details that who they were and where they were from directly contributed to their deaths. Their paths were forged by a history of racism and economic hardship that fuels things like drug addictions, and Jesmyn powerfully shares this story to reveal the parallel universes that exist in America. There are worlds some Americans never see, and this memoir shines a revelatory light on them. In the wake of police brutality and the senseless murder of black men in America — this is a must-read.