I set out to write about memoir, mostly because I’m obsessed with the genre, but also because I love so many memoirs that I want to share some of my favorites. Initially I intended to write “in defense of memoir” (and that would’ve been the title, natch) but then I realized this: memoir doesn’t need me to stick up for it.
Any personal writing is polarizing. It’s just the nature of the beast. Memoir, being the most visible of the personal writing genres, seems to be attacked the most – or, at least, the most visibly. There are passionate discussions about truth, anger over the “fake” memoir, accusations of navel-gazing and narcissism, and rather pretentious descriptions like this (one of my favorites):
Regardless of how much it gets badmouthed, memoir is here to stay. And, I’d go so far as to claim that the genre keeps getting better and better (ubiquitous terrible celeb memoirs notwithstanding). Some of my favorites “bend” the genre, and may not necessarily be “memoir,” but I classify them as such anyway.
For your reading pleasure, here are some fantastic must-read memoirs.
By “traditional,” I mean that these books follow a traditional memoir structure and wouldn’t ever fall into another category of books. There are TONS of fantastic traditional memoirs throughout the history of the genre – many that I still need to read myself – so this selection represents just a few of my favorites.
Mary Karr, Lit
In the world of memoir, Mary Karr is the It Girl. Her memoirs (including The Liar’s Club and Cherry) are all excellent, but I have a special place in my heart for Lit, which, incidentally, was the first book of hers I ever read (though it’s her third). Lit documents her alcoholism and recovery, and it’s chock-full of lovely lines and her signature style.
[For an excellent memoir how-to meets historical overview, complete with a comprehensive reading list, check out Karr’s The Art of Memoir.]
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Didion is the queen of nonfiction (at least in my book), so it’s no surprise that her memoir is perfect. The Year of Magical Thinking recounts her grief following the sudden death of her husband, and is so universal that anyone who has suffered loss of any kind can find comfort in her honest, intimate narrative.
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
I’m pretty obsessed with Strayed – I’m a huge fan of her podcast Dear Sugar, I read her Dear Sugar anthology Tiny Beautiful Things often, and Wild made me want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I love everything Cheryl Strayed does, and her memoir is one of my all-time favorites. It found me at just the time I needed it, and I can’t say enough about how much it means to me. Instead of resorting to more platitudes and worshipping, I’ll just say this: read it.
Other Traditional Memoirs
Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk
Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face
Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
I take this subgenre name from an article by Katie Rose Guest Pryal in Rhetoric Society Quarterly entitled “The Genre of the Mood Memoir and the Ethos of Psychiatric Disability.” This is a very specific subgenre that I read ravenously after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I find memoirs about psychiatric disability to be typically very well-written and also comforting.
Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind
Jamison is a clinical psychologist and an astonishingly lovely writer. She has written a number of books on bipolar disorder (which she has), as well as suicide and grief. An Unquiet Mind documents her experiences with bipolar and gives a fascinating perspective as both patient and professional.
Marya Hornbacher, Madness: A Bipolar Life
In Madness, Hornbacher uses her signature poetic language to describe her bipolar disorder. Her life-long struggle with the illness and raw accounts of her ups and downs makes for a breathless story punctuated by extremes. I’ve read plenty of criticisms about this book and the way Hornbacher presents herself and her struggles, but I found it to be an intriguing read and insightful portrayal of some of the effects bipolar disorder can have on a life.
Other Psychiatric/Disability/Illness Memoirs
Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
Lauren Slater, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir (I wrote a little about this beautiful but confusing book here. Slater also wrote a memoir called Prozac Diary, which, I confess, was a little bit hard to buy into after reading Lying, but a fairly good account of what it’s like to take psychiatric meds).
There are several memoir-ish books I love that may or may not *technically* be memoirs. But you should read them anyway.
Maggie Nelson, Bluets
I know I’ve said this already, but I am OBSESSED with Maggie Nelson. I love every word she writes. In addition to Bluets, she has two other memoir-ish genre-benders: The Argonauts and The Red Parts. None of them fit easily into one genre, which is in part what makes them so damn great. That and she is an amazing writer with one of the best brains in existence. I chose Bluets for this list because it’s the one I love best, though you can’t go wrong with any of her writing. Bluets is about a lot of things including the color blue. It’s also about longing and love and redemption. It’s about making sense of life and how we move on in our suffering. Just read it. I swear you won’t regret it.
Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
Manguso chronicles her diary-keeping, an involved affair that went on for 25 years and accumulated 800,000 words. She does this without once citing her diary. It’s brief and insightful in all the best possible ways – ways that don’t make sense until you experience it.
Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Have memoir recommendations? Let me know!