Reading lists

The best memoirs of all time, as chosen by our readers

These true-life tales are irresistible and eye-opening reads.

The best memoirs of all time including Michelle Obama's Becoming, Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air, Chanel Miller's Know My Name and Patricia Lockwood's Priestdaddy.
Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

A memoir can be a lot of things: a journey through someone's life, an insight into their mindset at a particular time, a comfort to someone experiencing similar things, an inspiration for those seeking something more.

Memoirs are both intimate and all-encompassing; in telling their own story, the author is often speaking to a vast audience.

We asked Penguin readers on Twitter to tell us about their favourite memoir, and let's just say that our to-read piles have grown exponentially in a short period of time. We were inundated with recommendations, encompassing everything from reflections on war, grief, sexuality and religion, to insider accounts of Hollywood life, political conspiracy, even philosophical sporting legends.

Here, we’ve rounded up the most popular picks. Whether you’re looking for light hearted escapism or hard-hitting journalism, there’s something to suit every taste.

If you'd like more lists like this one, try our reader's 100 favourite classic novels, learn about their favourite children's books and hear about books written by women that they love.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

We say: A luminous and compassionate look at the universal experience of loneliness, detailing Olivia Laing's experiences after moving to New York City in her midthirties.

You say: “You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”.


Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)

We say: Born a Crime is the thought-provoking coming-of-age story of Trevor Noah, rising comedy star and host of US phenomenon, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. With sharp observations on politics, race and identity, it's an essential, soul-nourishing read.

You say: I learnt a lot that will stay with me forever.


Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr (2016)

We say: Musical legend Johnny Marr tells his own story in Set the Boy Free, from recounting the tensions that led him to leave The Smiths in 1987 to how he pushed the boundaries of music in groups including The Pretenders, The The, Modest Mouse and The Cribs.

You say: Proves himself to be as good a writer as he is a musician.


Toast by Nigel Slater (2003)

We say: Nigel Slater's mouth-watering memoir begins and ends with a recipe for mince pies. A poignant recollection of the tastes and smells of his childhood, the chef's award-winning book has been adapted for the screen and stage multiple times.

You say: I very much enjoyed Toast. Exactly my era, and very evocative of the time. Food is such a powerful aid to memory.


Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford (1960)

We say: Jessica Mitford reveals how it felt to grow up in one of England's most legendary aristocratic families. A hugely entertaining tale of scandal, adventure, and love, as well as a unique study in social history. 

You say: For its lasting impact on my imaginings of the sister's lives and for its hilarity and loss told evenly.


When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bendele (2018)

We say: When They Call You A Terrorist is a poetic reflection on humanity by one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, writing with Asha Bandele. An empowering and essential read, this is a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent Black life expendable.

You say: I learnt so much about things I had no clue about.


Over the Top by Jonathan van Ness (2019)

We say: The exuberant, loveable star of Netflix's recent Queer Eye reboot tackles gender identity, sexuality, addiction, and a HIV+ diagnosis in their frank, revelatory memoir, Over the Top. Laced with vulnerability, humour and ice-skating trivia, this is an essential read for anyone struggling on the path to self-love. 

You say: It gives me hope that, even though we go through dark times, we can overcome.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)

We say: The first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography is an important and lyrical look at racial prejudice and misogyny in the United States in the 1930s and 40s. Growing up in rural Arkansas, Angelou navigates everything from sexual abuse to academic excellence, in the most sublime, poetic prose.

You say: I don’t think anyone will ever beat I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings. I remember feeling awed while reading, just excited by how wonderfully she was using language.


Constellations by Sinead Gleeson (2019)

We say: Sinead Gleeson reflects on her experiences as a woman in this sublime collection of personal essays. Covering art, illness, ghosts and grief, the beautiful, life-affirming read is a testament to strength and survival.

You say: Exquisite use of language and form, brave story.


All Will Be Well: A Memoir by John McGahern (2005)

We say: Award-winning author John McGahern reflects on his childhood in All Will Be Well. Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 50s, this is a rich and nuanced portrayal of an important period of Irish history, as well as an insight into an illustrious writing career.

You say: Extraordinary writing, eloquent, sad, shocking — and he can write the history and psyche of a hedge in one paragraph.


Redeemable by Erwin Jones (2016)

We say: When Erwin James entered prison at 27, he was plagued with despair over the enormity of his crimes. A consultation with a prison psychologist was the catalyst for a transformative journey, which he recounts in Redeemable. It’s a deeply moving account of the human condition, and the power of education, understanding and hope.

You say: I found it in the prison library. I started reading it in my cell at night and started thinking about my own road to redemption, it made me think there was hope. I could not re-write history but I could write a better future.


This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps (2018)

We say: Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks' star Busy Philipps is well known for her remarkably candid social media presence. Her autobiography, This Will Only Hurt a Little, is written in much the same vein. A hugely entertaining look at Hollywood, motherhood, and friendship, there are more than a few juicy anecdotes to devour.

You say: It’s so insightful about what women face in Hollywood, and Busy is a great storyteller.


Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (2003)

We say: Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk builds a beautifully evocative portrait of Istanbul, his hometown, in this memoir.

You say: It’s not just a memoir of a person, but a city, too.


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