As much as we can become inspired by works of fiction, there’s nothing quite like being inspired by a good memoir. Reading a story and knowing it was something someone actually went through – that it was someone’s life – can affect us in the most profound ways. A memoir is one of the best gifts a writer can give their readers.
This is a list of ten of the most incredible memoirs that will change the way you look at life.
1. Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
Around the time Elizabeth Gilbert turned thirty, she went through an early-onslaught midlife crisis. She had everything an educated, ambitious American woman was supposed to want—a husband, a house, a successful career. But instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed with panic, grief, and confusion. She went through a divorce, a crushing depression, another failed love, and the eradication of everything she ever thought she was supposed to be.
To recover from all this, Gilbert took a radical step. In order to give herself the time and space to find out who she really was and what she really wanted, she got rid of her belongings, quit her job, and undertook a yearlong journey around the world—all alone. Eat, Pray, Love is the absorbing chronicle of that year. Her aim was to visit three places where she could examine one aspect of her own nature set against the backdrop of a culture that has traditionally done that one thing very well. In Rome, she studied the art of pleasure, learning to speak Italian and gaining the twenty-three happiest pounds of her life. India was for the art of devotion, and with the help of a native guru and a surprisingly wise cowboy from Texas, she embarked on four uninterrupted months of spiritual exploration. In Bali, she studied the art of balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence. She became the pupil of an elderly medicine man and also fell in love the best way—unexpectedly.
An intensely articulate and moving memoir of self-discovery, Eat, Pray, Love is about what can happen when you claim responsibility for your own contentment and stop trying to live in imitation of society’s ideals. It is certain to touch anyone who has ever woken up to the unrelenting need for change.
2. Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks
As moving as his bestselling works of fiction, Nicholas Sparks’s unique memoir, written with his brother, chronicles the life-affirming journey of two brothers bound by memories, both humorous and tragic. In January 2003, Nicholas Sparks and his brother, Micah, set off on a three-week trip around the globe. It was to mark a milestone in their lives, for at thirty-seven and thirty-eight respectively, they were now the only surviving members of their family. Against the backdrop of the wonders of the world and often overtaken by their feelings, daredevil Micah and the more serious, introspective Nicholas recalled their rambunctious childhood adventures and the tragedies that tested their faith. And in the process, they discovered startling truths about loss, love, and hope.Narrated with irrepressible humor and rare candor, and including personal photos, THREE WEEKS WITH MY BROTHER reminds us to embrace life with all its uncertainties…and most of all, to cherish the joyful times, both small and momentous, and the wonderful people who make them possible.
3. The Art of Not Falling Apart by Christina Patterson
We plan, as the old proverb says, and God laughs. But most of us don’t find it all that funny when things go wrong. Most of us want love, a nice home, good work, and happy children. Many of us grew up with parents who made these things look relatively easy and assumed we would get them, too. So what do you do if you don’t? What do you do when you feel you’ve messed it all up and your friends seem to be doing just fine? For Christina Patterson, it was her job as a journalist that kept her going through the ups and downs of life. And then she lost that, too. Dreaming of revenge and irritated by self-help books, she decided to do the kind of interviews she had never done before. The resulting conversations are surprising, touching and often funny. There’s Ken, the first person to be publicly fired from a FTSE-100 board. There’s Winston, who fell through a ceiling onto a purple coffin. There’s Louise, whose baby was seriously ill, but who still worried about being fat. And through it all, there’s Christina, eating far too many crisps as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life. The Art of Not Falling Apart is a joyous, moving, and sometimes shockingly honest celebration of life as an adventure, one where you ditch your expectations, raise a glass, and prepare for a rocky ride.
4. Devil at My Heels by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin
The inspirational and extraordinarymemoir of one of the most courageous of the greatest generation, Louis Zamperini: Olympian, WWII Japanese POW and survivor.
A juvenile delinquent, a world class NCAA miler, a 1936 Olympian, a WWII bombardier: Louis Zamperini had a fuller than most, when it changed in an instant. On May 27, 1943, his B–24 crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Louis and two other survivors found a raft amid the flaming wreckage and waited for rescue. Instead, they drifted two thousand miles for forty–seven days. Their only food: two shark livers and three raw albatross. Their only water: sporadic rainfall. Their only companions: hope and faith–and the ever–present sharks. On the forty–seventh day, mere skeletons close to death, Zamperini and pilot Russell Phillips spotted land–and were captured by the Japanese. Thus began more than two years of torture and humiliation as a prisoner of war.
Zamperini was threatened with beheading, subject to medical experiments, routinely beaten, hidden in a secret interrogation facility, starved and forced into slave labour, and was the constant victim of a brutal prison guard nicknamed the Bird–a man so vicious that the other guards feared him and called him a psychopath. Meanwhile, the Army Air Corps declared Zamperini dead and President Roosevelt sends official condolences to his family, who never gave up hope that he was alive.
Somehow, Zamperini survived and he returned home a hero. The celebration was short–lived. He plunged into drinking and brawling and the depths of rage and despair. Nightly, the Bird’s face leered at him in his dreams. It would take years, but with the love of his wife and the power of faith, he was able to stop the nightmares and the drinking.
A stirring memoir from one of the greatest of the “Greatest Generation,” DEVIL AT MY HEELS is a living document about the brutality of war, the tenacity of the human spirit, and the power of forgiveness.
5. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.
6. The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun
The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is a memoir about life truths learned through crafting.
People who craft know things. They know how to transform piles of yarn into sweaters and scarves. They know that some items, like woolen bikini tops, are better left unknit. They know that making a hat for a newborn baby isn’t just about crafting something small but appreciating the beginnings of life, which sometimes helps make peace with the endings. They know that if you knit your boyfriend a sweater, your relationship will most likely be over before the last stitch.
Alanna Okun knows that crafting keeps her anxiety at bay. She knows that no one will ever be as good a knitting teacher as her beloved grandmother. And she knows that even when we can’t control anything else, we can at least control the sticks, string, and fabric right in front of us.
Okun lays herself bare and takes readers into the parts of themselves they often keep hidden. Yet at the same time she finds humor in the daily indignities all crafters must face (like when you catch the dreaded Second Sock Syndrome and can’t possibly finish the second in a pair). Okun has written a book that will speak to anyone who has said to themselves, or to everyone within earshot, “I made that.”
7. I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.
When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education.
On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.
Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.
8. Prisoner of the Japanese: From Changi to Tokyo by Tom Henling Wade
On 15 February 1942, the Japanese captured Singapore and took 130,000 Allied prisoners of war. One of those prisoners was British Lieutenant Tom Wade. For the next three and a half years he was to suffer the indignity and hardships of captivity and the torture and brutality of his captors, first in Changi, then in Korea and finally in Tokyo.
This book is the story of those years in captivity. They were years of horror and despair, characterised by harsh treatment at the hands of sadistic guards who believed that a soldier who has surrendered has lost all humanity. At Tokyo Headquarters Camp in particular, Wade and his fellow POWs had to suffer the paranoid beatings and victimisation of Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, who successfully avoided prosecution by the War Crimes Commission at the war’s end.
Wade’s moving account of his period of captivity is characterised by the sense of determination, hope and endurance which sustained all those who shared his experience.
9. A Man from Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life by Isaiah Washington and Lavaille Lavette
In this inspirational memoir, Grey’s Anatomy actor Isaiah Washington explains how filling in the gaps of his past led him to discover a new passion: helping those less fortunate. DNA testing revealed that Washington was descended from the Mende people, who today live in Sierra Leone. For many people, the story would end with the results of the search; for Isaiah, it had just begun. Discovering his roots has given him a new purpose, to lead an inspirational life defined by faith and charity.
After visiting Sierra Leone, and researching the country and its needs, Washington forged a strong relationship with the Mende people, and was inducted as Chief Gondobay Manga in May 2006. He established The Gondobay Manga Foundation to institute many improvements suggested by the country’s people, addressing educational concerns, practical issues (road building, water supply, and electricity), and rehabilitative projects.
Dual citizenship has been a dream of African-Americans such as W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but Washington became the first to realize that honor in 2008. A twofold milestone, it was also the first time an African president granted citizenship based on DNA.
10. Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.
Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.