10 of the Best Autobiographies You Really Should Have Read By Now
Want to get a first-person peek into the lives of some extraordinary people? Add these exhilarating autobiographies to your list of must-reads.
1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
This 1845 autobiography by former slave Frederick Douglass is widely considered to be one of the best autobiographies ever written. It is a graphic retelling of Douglass’ childhood and the torturous abuse he suffered at the hands of numerous slave-owners, as well as his traumatic escape to freedom, after which he became a respected orator and prominent abolitionist.
2. The Year of Magical Thinking
In 2003, Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana was hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia that turned into septic shock. Days later, while Quintana was comatose in the hospital, her husband of nearly 40 years died suddenly of a heart attack while at the dinner table. This stunning memoir, which won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction, recounts Didion’s attempts to reconcile her grief in the year following her husband’s death, while caring for her seriously ill daughter at the same time.
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3. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Considered by some as one of the best autobiographies ever published, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin details the Founding Father’s early life and unique adulthood. One of the autobiography’s most notable sections details Franklin’s attempts to achieve “moral perfection” through the achievement of 13 virtues, including temperance, silence, and order. Although it was written more than 200 years ago, Franklin’s suggestions for bettering one’s life remain as current—and as essential to humankind as ever.
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4. Out of Africa
This 1937 memoir, which became an award-winning film, presents a captivating account of the 17 years Danish author Karen Blixen lived on a 4,000-acre coffee plantation in Kenya, which was then called British East Africa. She had moved to the plantation from Denmark with her husband, whom she divorced after he proved unfaithful. After the divorce, Blixen decided to stay in Kenya and manage the farm by herself. To her disappointment, she failed and returned to Denmark—but not without a collection of stories about her adventure that inspired this breathtaking tale.
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5. Long Walk to Freedom
In 1962, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela was arrested for conspiring to incite a strike and overthrow the government and was sentenced to life in prison. He would serve 28 years. Following his release in 1990, he ascended to become the country’s first black president, in the first presidency secured by democratic election. This autobiography recounts Mandela’s remarkable life, from his childhood growing up in Mvezo, South Africa, to his formal education and training as a lawyer. It also chronicles his time in prison and his unprecedented ascension to the presidency, further cementing Mandela’s place as one of the most notable leaders of our time.
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6. The Diary of a Young Girl
If you somehow escaped middle or high school without ever having read this book, pick up a copy and read it now. This 1947 work is a collection of writings from the diary Anne Frank kept for the two years she was in hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In daily writings, Frank shares intimate details about her family, crushes on boys, her religion, and the heartbreaking effects of the war. In light of her tragic death in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 15, what makes this book so remarkable is how Anne was able to remain hopeful about the goodness of humanity, despite the suffering her family endured.
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7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
As the title obviously suggests, this is a book about writing, but it’s not a conventional one. It’s not a typical memoir, either. Rather, it’s a witty and clever amalgamation of the two. While the book presents plenty of advice to writers, it’s also a colourful account of author Anne Lamott’s search for identity and religious meaning as she overcomes personal struggles. As such, Bird by Bird is a must-read for writers and non-writers alike.
8. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir)
If, at any time in your life, you’ve battled anxiety or felt like a misfit, you’ll want to add this witty, riotous 2012 memoir by blogger Jenny Lawson to your reading list. In the book, Lawson recalls—with colourful and profanity-laced prose—her unusual childhood, including her father’s penchant for road-kill taxidermy; her life-long struggles with a severe anxiety disorder; and her heartbreaking miscarriages, all while making readers laugh out loud.
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9. Black Boy
In the 1920s, Richard Wright was a young black boy growing up in the racially charged South. With an absent father and chronically ill mother, he was often left to run wild, and didn’t receive any type of formal schooling until he was 12 years-old. Still, he excelled academically and was a gifted writer, and he harboured aspirations of someday moving North and becoming a published author. This autobiography details his childhood years as well as his early years as a young adult in Chicago. Published in 1945, it became an instant bestseller and is often credited with furthering discussion about race relations in the United States.
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10. Autobiography of Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was a master of the written word. Of course, Twain was known for great (and often-censored) American novels like the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His autobiography was his last work but wasn’t published until 2010—100 years after his death, exactly as he directed. It instantly became a best-seller. Unlike conventional autobiographies, the story of Twain’s life doesn’t follow a chronological, predictable order; rather, it serves as a collection of ruminations about his exceptional experiences, based on 5,000 pages of memoirs he left in the care of the University of California at Berkeley before his death.
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