When it comes to reading, my tastes run the gamut. Fiction will forever be my ride-or-die favorite genre (I could stay up for hours diving deep into a good plot). But the world of books is thankfully infinite—and I’m endlessly grateful for all the options available. Want to experience greater happiness? There are about a million reads on the topic. Love a good book-turned-movie combo? Consider this your definitive list. And if you’re a new parent, don’t worry: these are our favorite guides to support your journey.
Conclusion? If there’s a topic you’re totally new to or one you want to learn more about, there’s nothing you can’t read up on. After fiction, memoirs just might be the perfect literary genre. I certainly have my faves, but as a nonfiction junkie/lifelong learner, certain inspiring memoirs allow me to immerse myself in a rich narrative while still scratching my personal development itch. And what’s not to love about an intimate view into the life of someone with a fascinating true story to tell?
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21 Inspiring Memoirs to Shift Your Perspective and Transform Your Worldview
To celebrate my go-to genre, I’ve rounded up my personal picks for the most impactful and inspiring memoirs. Each of them gave me a new perspective and has subtly permeated the way that I think. So dive in and prepare to discover a new-to-you read.
P.S. Looking for more ways to carve out a few extra minutes of reading each day? Try our nine tips that’ll help you finish that novel that’s been sitting on your nightstand for months. (It’s time!)
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
Loving all of the good people and things in your life unconditionally doesn’t dismiss the fact that you can do so while being alone. Alderton tells of her journey of falling in love with others, out of love with herself, and everything in between in this gripping memoir.
The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari
This emotional journey is a reminder that healing from our past may be the first step in connecting with who we are. Devastated by the death of her father, Ayelet Tsabari beings her lifelong struggle at the age of nine to discover her identity as an Isreali of Yemeni descent. Tsabari finds herself in many different countries, with many different people, in search of a connection with herself and her family’s history.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
The old adage rings true: Never judge a book by its cover. But when I discovered Ashley C. Ford’s memoir in my favorite bookstore, I’m glad I let the cover art influence my purchase. Ford’s debut is the compelling story of a woman growing up trying to reconcile the absence of her incarcerated father with the need to understand a complicated familial love. What follows is a reflection of the haunting and illuminating journey of a woman piecing together an understanding of her body, her life, and herself.
Uncultured by Daniella Mestyanek Young
Some argue that life isn’t fair, in the sense that it’s all about playing the cards that you’re dealt. The way that Daniella Mestyanek Young details her journey of bettering her life embodies this metaphor to a tee. Young tells the story of her upbringing in the religious cult, The Children of God. At the age of 15, Young escapes the cult, also known as The Family, and finds herself in Texas, where she begins her path of breaking free from the toxicity of group mentality that she was raised in.
French Lessons by Alice Kaplan
After the death of her father, Alice Kaplan uses French as a way to escape her home life and enter a world of fascinating language and culture. Fast forward to her adulthood, as a graduate student at Yale, Kaplan advances her passion for French and deeply examines French intellectuals and their obsession with Fascism. The nostalgic French references and fascination with the culture makes this memoir beautiful and relatable for all who yearn to travel and immerse themselves in other cultures.
Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family by Hannah Howard
Hannah Howard’s fascination for food and cooking drives her into the male-dominated profession. While she grapples with motherhood, personal loss, and joy, her love for food remains steadfast and serves as a reminder that nourishing your life is just as important as the food you eat.
The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper
As an African American woman and ER physician, Michele Harper reflects on beginning her life in a new city, with a new job, leaving both her husband and past life behind. Harper’s empathy toward her patients and how she describes the uncovering and mending of flaws is truly inspiring. It serves as a reminder that no one is perfect, and that fearing for the future will only hold you back from the greatness that may lay ahead.
Everything is Perfect by Kate Nason
Nason’s shocking memoir recounts a well-known story from a vastly different perspective. In January of 1998, she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her—and that the “other woman’ was involved with a president. Nason beautifully details how women face infidelity and all of the emotional trauma that comes with it from a fiercely feminine perspective.
American Daughter by Stephanie Thornton Plymale
After one phone call, Stephanie Thornton Plymale begins the painful journey of uncovering her mother’s past, who spent most of her life in and out of jails and psych wards, grappling with mental illness. This story of a strained mother-daughter relationship offers universal messages about healing and forgiveness that come with overcoming the pain of the past.
Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad
Something I admire most about memoirs is the writer’s ability to reflect upon a story that’s deeply personal while sharing widely universal truths. While I could never pretend to understand the journey of a young woman whose life is suddenly upturned by a cancer diagnosis, nor do I want my own experience to minimize the beauty, challenges, and truths shared on each page of this book, there’s transformative knowledge that can be garnered from a woman fighting to survive. If you’ve ever found yourself desperate for an opportunity and the inspiration to start anew, this is the book to read.
Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles
At first, swimming may seem like a singularly-focused topic without much opportunity to extend into anything else. But the pages of Powles’ lyrically-written prose reveal the power of immersing yourself in a body water. This memoir draws upon the intersection of so many storytelling elements and dives into countless, seemingly-disparate topics. But at the intersection of it all is an exploration of what it means to belong and feel at home in the world.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
A talented multi-hyphenate (she also heads up the indie pop band, Japanese Breakfast) Michelle Zauner holds a talent for storytelling that transcends contexts, backgrounds, and cultures. Growing up as one of the only Asian American students at her school in Oregon, Zauner writes about how she found comfort and connection through food. The narrative is not only captivating, but Zauner’s honest and outspoken voice comes alive in every sentence on every page. This is the kind of book that, if it hasn’t already been shared with you, you’ll definitely recommend to everyone you know.
“I can hardly speak Korean, but in H Mart I feel like I’m fluent … I remember the snacks Mom told me she ate when she was a kid and how I tried to imagine her at my age. I wanted to like all the things she did, to embody her completely.”
It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell
In a world that defines women by our bodies and appearance, it can feel like a revolutionary act to unapologetically love food. At times heartbreaking but illuminating throughout, Andie Mitchell’s memoir reflects on the challenges of experiencing life in both smaller and larger bodies—and never feeling like enough. While self-acceptance can read like a hallow buzzword at times, Mitchell’s writing reminds readers that by identifying and consistently connecting with your inner truth, you can build a life that feels perfect to you.
Shoe Dog, A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
I was actually caught off guard by how much I instantly loved this book. The story behind one of the world’s most iconic brands—and its notoriously private founder—will inspire anyone who wants to be a builder, founder, innovator, or creator. It’s a powerful reminder to stay true to a bold vision, no matter the obstacles.
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle
My sister gave me this book (one of her all-time faves) for Christmas, so I can’t yet give it a full review since I’m still in process. But I’ve already fallen in love with Doyle’s authenticity and bravery to lay her truest self bare in the ultimate act of vulnerability. So far, the message to just be you has come off the page and straight into my heart.
Will by Will Smith
Included in our round-up of the best books of the past year, Will Smith’s memoir was unanimously named more than a few editors’ favorite read. If ever there was a celebrity we’ve wanted to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives of, it’s Will Smith’s. And despite recent controversy, his book is full of insightful wisdom, beautiful reflections, and a peek into his inner world. Bonus: Oprah called it her favorite memoir of all time.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I’ve recommended this book to just about everyone I know. I still remember finishing it on an airplane, tears streaming down my face but also so moved by the power of love and the brevity of life. It’s the story of a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. In an instant, the future he and his wife had planned all changed, and he invites the reader on his journey toward discovering what truly makes our lives worth living.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
It’s a classic for a reason. This book will inspire you to move past society’s expectations of who you should be and to set off on the journey of discovering your truest self. It’s soul-searching at its finest with a backdrop of three very different, and very fun-to-read-about, destinations.
Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
Cahalan’s story of her descent from successful newspaper journalist to psychotic patient—in a matter of days—is both chilling and fascinating. The mystery of her diagnosis unfolds through the lens of her tenacious spirit, her family’s love and faith, and the power of survival. I couldn’t put this book down as I followed Cahalan’s journey from hell and back to finding herself again.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
I’ve yet to meet a single person who’s read this book and not been blown away by Westover’s story. Raised in rural Idaho with a conspiracy-theorist father and religious fanatic upbringing, she set foot in a classroom for the first time at age 17. Her beautiful writing and strong intellect are a testament to the determination it took for her to rise up—and the power that comes from access to education.
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This post was originally published on January 26, 2020 and has since been updated.
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