These true-life tales are irresistible and eye-opening reads.
These true-life tales are irresistible and eye-opening reads.
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.
Educated by Tara Westover (2018)
We say: Tara Westover's compelling coming-of-age memoir was a popular fixture on "Book of the Year" lists back in 2018, from The Guardian to The New York Times, The Economist and Vogue. Documenting her escape from a strict Mormon household in Idaho, Educated is an inspiring ode to the power of education and self-determination.
You say: An extraordinary story in itself, but beautifully and unsentimentally written. Still think about it a year or two later.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (2017)
We say: Poet Patricia Lockwood's loving take on her unorthodox Catholic upbringing is an absolute joy. From anti-abortion rallies to virginity pledges, it explores the complexities of balancing tradition with hard-won identity.
You say: Funny, but lyrical, and an incredible story.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)
We say: The candid memoir of the United States' former First Lady inspired Nadia Hallgren's brilliant 2020 Netflix documentary of the same name. From her childhood in Chicago to her time spent at the world's most famous address, this is a revelatory reading experience.
You say: She’s had such a unique experience. Every night I sat down to read it, it felt like girl talk time. A mentor via a book.
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton (2018)
We say: The High Low co-host Dolly Alderton was dubbed a "Nora Ephron for the millennial generation" thanks to Everything I Know About Love, her witty and heartfelt tribute to life in your 20s; the heartaches, humiliations and unbreakable female friendships forged among the ruins.
You say: I laughed a lot, I felt understood, and of course it is very zeitgeisty!
Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)
We say: Emily Doe, the survivor in the Brock Turner sexual assault case of 2016, reveals herself to be Chanel Miller in Know My Name. When Miller’s heartfelt victim impact statement was first put online, it was read by 11 million people in less than four days. Her memoir is just as vivid and important; providing a searing, sublimely written portrait of a flawed legal system.
You say: It put me back together and gave words to how I was feeling about our legal system.
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.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, Alex Haley (1965)
We say: Malcolm X was vilified by his critics, yet was a voice and an inspiration to African Americans. In this book, written with the author of Roots, Alex Haley, he tells his story.
You say: It was a brutally honest examination of man’s ability to transform in the face of the most oppressive conditions imaginable.
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.
Red Notice by Bill Browder (2015)
We say: Red Notice is a gripping political exposé which chronicles the death of young Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and how it transformed Bill Browder from blustering hedge fund manager to renowned human rights activist.
You say: Reads like a fictional thriller with great historical contextualisation.
The Moon’s a Balloon by David Niven (1971)
We say: David Niven's charming and heartfelt memoir, The Moon's a Balloon, is a glorious insight into the golden era of Hollywood, with guest appearances from Lawrence Oliver, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor and more.
You say: It popped into my head first. Charming, honest, funny and poignant.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
We say: When Breath Becomes Air is an essential part of the burgeoning medical memoir genre. Diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at just 36 years old, it explores Paul Kalanithi's transition from medical student to subject, as he grapples with profound questions around mortality, identity, life, and fatherhood. A masterpiece.
You say: A deeply compelling story of a doctor’s personal struggle in understanding mortality. Raw and real.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)
We say: For a moving and darkly funny tale of family life, look no further than Alison Bechdel's gothic graphic memoir, Fun Home – the inspiration for the 2019 Olivier Award nominated musical of the same name.
You say: Evokes so many different emotions, as I think a memoir should. The art often communicates that which words can’t always manage. *chefs kiss*
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.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2012)
We say: Why Be Happy... is the true story behind Jeanette Winterson's internationally bestselling debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It's a witty, celebratory story about the redemptive power of literature, as Winterson searches for belonging, identity, and her biological mother.
You say: It’s in the top ten based on title alone.
Heimat by Nora Krug (2018)
We say: Nora Krug's sprawling, multi-layered graphic memoir, Heimat, is a powerful meditation on Germany's cultural identity, winning multiple awards on publication back in 2018.
You say: It’s a self-illustrated memoir that explores her attitude to German history as a German-American. Very moving.
Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall by Spike Milligan (1971)
We say: After serving in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, comedian Spike Milligan recounted his experiences of army life. As funny and irreverent as a real-life Yossarian, the seven-volume series beautifully captures the chaos of war.
You say: The unreliable war memoirs. Funny, then achingly sad. Should be compulsory reading.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
We say: Following the death of her father, Helen Macdonald purchased a goshawk called Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside. Her memoir follows the trials and tribulations of taming the wild animal, ultimately becoming a powerful and profound meditation on grief.
You say: Superb nature writing, and a battle with grief.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1952)
We say: One of the greatest books of the 20th Century, The Diary of a Young Girl needs no introduction. Anne Frank's reflections while hiding in Amsterdam in the summer of 1942 offer a moving, personal insight into one of the most cataclysmic events of recent history.
You say: I realised that what happened to her could happen to anyone, which includes me. How precious life and a soul is.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964)
We say: Brilliantly evoking the exuberant mood of Paris after the First World War, Ernest Hemingway's memoir captures the creativity and vivacity of one of the greatest literary generations.
You say: Wonderfully captures 20s Paris and Hemingway’s early writing life. Quite beautiful and a great travel companion in the city.
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.
The Soul of a Butterfly by Muhammed Ali (2003)
We say: From Louisville, Kentucky, to Heavyweight Champion of the World to worldwide ambassador for peace, The Soul of a Butterfly is still a timely and spiritual memoir about love in all its forms, written by Muhammad Ali and his daughter Hana Yasmeen.
You say: It spoke to my soul!
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (2007)
We say: Japanese literary titan Haruki Murakami began running at the age of 33. His seminal memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is a compelling meditation on the sport, in which he credits the repetition of his daily exercise for instilling the mental and physical discipline needed to write novels. Maybe it will inspire you to dust off your trainers and finally write that masterpiece?
You say: For inspiration, and a reminder about what can be achieved from consistency. It’s honest and beautifully written.
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.
A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi (2020)
We say: An excellent coming-of-age memoir about growing up queer in a strict Muslim household. Stuck at the intersection of family, faith and freedom, Mohsin Zaidi’s journey of self-discovery reveals something deeper about humanity as a whole.
You say: I never thought I’d hold a book that represents my own upbringing and life in the UK. Mohsin writes with such flair, and the words on the pages will make you laugh and hit you in the feels. A triumph.
Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl (1984 and 1986)
We say: What was famed children’s author Roald Dahl like as a child? From plots of childhood revenge to taste-testing for Cadbury's, this electric two-volume memoir provides a fascinating insight into the mind behind Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and more of your childhood favourites.
You say: I think I read them at a formative time. They were the first time I really understood on a more than superficial level that people older than me really were young once.
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)
We say: The Cost of Living is Levy's second memoir, and sees her recounting her 50s, when she was set adrift from her marriage, with no desire to go back. The Guardian said the book was " an eloquent manifesto for what Levy calls 'a new way of living' in the post-familial world".
You say: The way she describes the unspoken aspects of life is so unique and so right.
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.
Tired of losing hours to box-sets? Maybe it's time you got stuck into a great novel series instead.
Grab a book, and get travelling.