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So which books are the contenders for the title of “the best autobiographies ever written”?
In their own words or from the pen of a biographer, the lives of others hold a magnetic intrigue.
We love to indulge our curiosity and read and find out more about the lives of well-known figures, and the inspirational tales of those little-known who have overcome adversity - but which stories stand out from the crowd?
We asked a selection of our bookish friends to share their thoughts on this.
Ordinarily, I’m not a big autobiography reader myself although I did this year read Belonging (along with the rest of the planet) and absolutely adored the grace, humour, dignity of the former first lady of the United States and it reminded me what I loved about autobiographies. I love hearing other people’s stories, where they’ve come from, and what drove them to achieve. It’s fascinating.
Here is our selection of memoirs by famous historical figures, authors, politicians, celebrities, and more.
Best Autobiographies Ever
I have been an Editorial Expert writing reviews for LoveReading since February 2014. Reading has always played a huge part in my life and I can quite happily chat books all day. I would describe myself as a reader, a lover of all things books, and can be found on twitter as @LRLizRobinson.
Blue: A Memoir by John Sutherland - A candid, objective, somehow cooly passionate, and often unsettling account of policing from a police officer. John Sutherland joined the Met in 1992 aged 22, we see snapshots of his life as an officer, as he progresses up the career ladder, as he deals with all the horrors and glory a life in blue has to offer. This was a Sunday Times top-five bestseller and one our LoveReading books of the year in 2017. Blue A Memoir is a worthwhile and fascinating read, I really do recommend it with my heart and soul.
Redeemable by Erwin James - Erwin James is a journalist and author, he is also a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and patron of a number of offender rehabilitation schemes. He writes with huge compassion and empathy, he is blunt but not graphic, honest but not seeking sympathy. This is a man who understands what he has done, understands the prison system, and truly believes that rehabilitation is the best way to protect the public. Redeemable is a hugely important book, it made me flinch and wonder at the capacity and capabilities of the human mind, it made me despair, it also made me hope, oh how it made me hope.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn - Simple, stunning, provocative, loved it! Author Raynor Winn has written about her own journey around the South West Coastal Path with her husband Moth. The Salt Path was shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Biography Award and the hardback was a Times Top 10 bestseller, all deservedly so. I felt wonder at their determination and almost elated as I came to the end of the book. The Salt Path is an eye-opening, truly inspirational read.
Sunday Times Best Seller. Writer of historical fiction, giving voice to the forgotten women of medieval England.
The Black Prince by Michael Jones - The Black Prince, one of our historical heroic figures, is brought centre stage, with all his talents and faults for us to enjoy.
Cecily Duchess of York by J.L. Laynesmith - Cecily Neville, the strong-willed doyenne of the 15th Century English Court, can be savoured here in vivid detail and insight.
The Perfect King by Ian Mortimer - Edward III is shown to be not only a leader of men on the battlefield but a law-maker, a builder, a lover of drama and art and literature.
Born in Pembrokeshire, Joanne Owen studied Anthropology and Archaeology with Social and Political Sciences and is now a London-based children's writer and LoveReading Editorial Expert. Her novels include Martha Mayhem, Circus of the Unseen and Puppet Master.
Black and White Sands by Elma Napier - Elma Napier's Black and White Sands (Papillote Press) is one of my favourite books of all time. It's the enthralling autobiography of a Scottish-born aristocrat who in 1932 abandoned the trappings and vacuity of high society for a dramatically different new life in the wildly majestic Caribbean island of Dominica. Like the island, Elma's spirit is indomitable (indeed, she was the first woman to sit in a West Indian parliament), her voice witty and engaging as she recounts the trials and tribulations, the joys and jubilations she and her husband experienced while building their home and new lives on their beloved adopted island: With Dominica we fell in love at first sight, an infatuation without tangible rhyme or reason, yet no more irrational than any other falling in love. Sublime.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby - Being an Arsenal supporter, this has special significance, but the beauty of this book about the all-consuming nature of supporting a football team is that it speaks to anyone who's experienced the agonies and ecstasies of following the beautiful game, no matter what team or division you follow. This oft-quoted excerpt sums up the spirit of both the book and its subject: I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine - Formerly a member of my favourite band ever - irrepressibly, infectiously energetic all-girl punk group The Slits - Viv Albertine's autobiography is an illuminating account of her life as a teenager at the heart of the maelstrom of the punk and post-punk music scene. During this time Viv formed a band with Sid Vicious, dated The Clash's Mick Jones and most significantly, of course - made one of the twentieth century's most astounding albums (Cut). This book also sees Viv explore her post-music personal battles and filmmaking career with raw wit. Autobiographies don't come more honest than this.⮝
Julie Cohen is the bestselling author of TOGETHER, 2018 Contemporary Romantic Novel of the Year, and Polari-Prize long listed (THE TWO LIVES OF) LOUIS & LOUISE.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank - Anne Frank's diary is eternally relevant, eternally profound, and an eternal testament both to the cruelty of human beings and our inherent goodness. I believe everyone should read this book.
The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister by Anne Lister lived her life fearlessly in 19th century Halifax as a female property holder and a lesbian. Her diaries show both how radical and how conservative she was. The story of how the diaries were discovered, repressed, and then rediscovered is also a fascinating insight into LGBTQ social history.
Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore - An autobiography of the author Mikal and a biography of his brother, executed killer Gary Gilmore, this is more than a true crime book—it's a dissection of the layers of violence that lie within a family and within the history of the USA.
Carolyn Kirby's debut novel The Conviction of Cora Burns was published in 2019. The Sunday Mirror called it "a great historical novel with bite."
Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming - A gripping memoir by 'Good Wife' actor Alan Cumming, that details the terrible physical and mental abuse inflicted on him by his father. Interwoven with an account of uncovering the secrets of his grandfather through an appearance on 'Who Do You Think You Are?' the story is driven by a question mark over Alan's parentage. A DNA test ultimately reveals the truth... A fascinating and ultimately uplifting story.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot - A beautifully written account of a young woman's struggle with alcoholism. Part memoir, part love letter to Orkney, this is an inspiring story of the power of the natural world to heal the mind.
Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker - A uniquely personal account of the wonder of flight written by a commercial airline pilot who is also a self-confessed aeroplane romantic. The book is crammed with fascinating facts about aviation but also suffused with the poetry of a life lived largely in the air.
Kath is a rugby-loving, tea-drinking, chocoholic reader, book blogger and writer who lives on a hill, that wanted to be a mountain, in South Wales.
If This Is A Man by Primo Levi - Primo Levi's memoir is a first-hand account of his arrest and subsequent detention in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He doesn't flinch from detailing the horrors he experiences and sees while there but perhaps what is most remarkable is that no bitterness or hatred comes through in his writing. His background as a chemist may have helped hone his powers of observation and enabled him to study both prisoners and guards alike, but what I'll remember and recommend this memoir for is the sheer humanity he infuses into it. It's a moving and important account of a bleak period in history by a remarkable man.
On Writing by Stephen King - If I'm ever asked to recommend a book on writing, On Writing is the one I pick. Stephen King's memoir holds a masterclass in the craft of writing within its pages. It's a book which had a huge impact on me when I first read it and one I continue to revisit for inspiration. Written a year after having been terribly injured in a serious accident, King takes stock of his life and writing career, describing formative memories and experiences, and generously offering up what he's learned along the way. You don't need to be a writer to enjoy On Writing, it'll appeal equally to his fans and those who read his books. However, if you are a writer, you're certain to find inspiration between the covers and come away feeling empowered, armed with the tools you need to write your own book(s).
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi - Marjane Satrapi's memoir of her time growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution was a revelation when I read it. It not only helped me to see the full storytelling potential of the graphic novel format but also opened my eyes to life under a regime I knew very little about, in a country more often than not demonised by the West. That the main character is also coming of age, a confusing and challenging enough prospect in itself, only adds another level of uncertainty and jeopardy to the story set in a country at a time when the laws controlling its citizens were subject to abrupt and drastic revision and reversals.
Librarian with a love and knowledge of children's books - but an avid reader across many genres. A LoveReading4Schools editorial expert.
Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin - Written by one of the best biographers around at the moment Claire Tomalin gives us an honest, well researched look at the life of Dickens. Never denying Dickens' genius but definitely showing us the man and his many faults. This is very easy to read, regardless that it is a long and complex book.
Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration by Leonard S Marcus - Oxenbury is an amazing illustrator, who has given us many of the well-loved classics of childhood reading. Here is an honest, beautifully illustrated look at the life of a modern illustrator, and her life. A book to read, to dip into and to just enjoy.
London The Biography by Peter Ackroyd - London is a fascinating city, which Ackroyd explores from begining to the recent present. The research needed is worn easily in this very readable history of an amazing place. If you are at all interested in how and why London has developed then read this book!
Fiona is the author of 16 romantic comedy novels (she also writes under the name of Ellen Berry). She started her writing life on Jackie, Just Seventeen and more!, and still loves magazines with a passion. Fiona lives in Glasgow with her husband Jimmy and their collie cross, Jack.
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay - I find Jackie Kay's writing compelling and so evocative. I was gripped by this memoir of her journey to find out where she came from and to forge a connection with her birth parents.
Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs - A gripping account of a crazy dysfunctional childhood. I adore his writing and have hoovered up pretty much everything he's written. Not a dull sentence with this book.
Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming - A sensitive and moving account of Cumming's difficult childhood, with a loving mother and an aggressive, volatile father, in Fife
Barry is an award winning illustrator and author from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. His first book It's Your World Now! was published by Pavilion in May 2019.
Chronicles by Bob Dylan - I'm a huge fan of Bob Dylan's music, and his autobiography is as intriguing, expansive and freewheeling as his records. Full of beautifully observed moments and intensely personal, this is a must for any fan of Dylan's canon.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers - So beautiful, so unexpected, so distinctive and memorable. I'm a huge admirer of Eggers, and all the subsequent books that he has published, but I think this remains my favourite as it's so utterly compelling.
Epileptic by David B - This is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel, and tells the story of the author's brother's struggles with epilepsy, and how those struggles deeply affected both him and has family. Graphically daring and filled with lacerating self reflection.
Susanna Crossman is an award-winning Anglo-French fiction writer and essayist. Judges Winner of LoveReading Very Short Story 2019. She just completed her memoir about her childhood in a commune, and has recent work in We'll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books), Neue Rundschau, The Lonely Crowd, and elsewhere...
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn - Nick Flynn’s ground-breaking memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, tells the story of two lives, tracing his relationship and extraordinary reunion with his absent, homeless, alcoholic father. Flynn is a poet, and his prose is lyrical, delicate, biting and true. I love this book for the electric writing, and because it delves deep into a moment of kairos, a trajectory leading Nick and his father onto the streets, into a homeless shelter (the former working, the latter seeking shelter) and finally to each other. “Some part of me knew he would show up, that if I stood in one place long enough he would find me, like you're taught to do when you're lost. But they never taught us what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting.”
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson - In 1990 Jeanette Winterson published her funny, erudite, semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are not the only Fruit about a young girl growing up in an evangelical family rebelling religiously, socially and sexually. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the brilliant doppelganger to this novel, a memoir about belonging, exploring Winterson’s search for her birth mother, but also her love and relationship with books, as she writes, “Books don’t make a home…they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.” Brilliant for all fanatic readers and writers.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi - Wise, funny, and harrowing, Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s beautifully-drawn black- and-white comic-strip memoir of growing up in Iran. Reading these pages, I was plunged into the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. Persepolis is both a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of political repression and war.
Elizabeth Wein is the author of CODE NAME VERITY and other books featuring young people as pilots. WHITE EAGLES comes out on 15 September.
Memory in a House by Lucy Boston - As well as being a memoir by a beloved author, I love this history of the Manor House in Hemingford Grey, the oldest inhabited house in England, which Lucy Boston made her own - how she restored it, came to know its ghosts, and used it as a concert venue for airmen in World War II, and immortalized it in her children's fiction as "Green Knowe."
A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller - The Aberdeenshire castle that the author grew up in is a significant character in this slender memoir, coming to life as a real place. But it's the author and her siblings running wild in its corridors and outside on the surrounding hills that make this book so memorable. An amazing tale of the vanished life of 1920s Scottish aristocracy.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham - Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya and then became a pilot - she was the first person to cross the Atlantic solo from east to west. Her life as a child fooling around with lions in Africa is just as astonishing as her adult life as a pioneering aviator.
Steve Cole is a bestselling children's author with titles including Astrosaurs, Young Bond, Tin Boy and Ten Nasty Little Toads.
The Kenneth Williams Diaries ed Russell Davies - Williams is a deliciously vicious diarist. Wild and elated or repressed and depressed his wit twangs off the page.
Eight Lives Down by Major Chris Hunter - A breathtaking war memoir by a decorated bomb disposal expert, honest, exciting and totally terrifying. I was lucky enough to write a pair of YA thrillers with Chris, and his knowledge and experience brought a forensic precision to the action.
Fat, Forty and Loving It by Henry VIII - This one might technically not exist.
Retired police officer. Husband. Dad. Londoner. Believer in Hope. Wrote a book called 'Blue'.
First Light by Geoffrey Wellum - Quite simply one of the most magnificent books I have ever read. Written by one of 'The Few', this is the memoir of a World War II spitfire pilot. Composed with rare beauty and grace, it affords the reader the rare privilege of soaring with the author amongst the clouds. A masterpiece.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand - The gloriously compelling, utterly heroic, scarcely believable life of Louis Zamperini - teenage tearaway, Olympic long distance runner and World War II aviator who survived a plane crash and more than forty days adrift at sea, only to be captured and tortured as a Japanese prisoner of war, later to emerge from it all as an absolute triumph of humanity. He died in 2014 at the age of 97. Beautifully told by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the equally masterful Seabiscuit.
Becoming by Michelle Obama - A life in progress, lived with humility and humanity and dignity and grace. Michelle Obama is some kind of wonderful - a role model for the ages.
I am a writer and actress and sometimes filmmaker. Included within the twenty-four books I have written are six set on our Olive Farm in the South of France. The Olive Farm books are very intimate memoirs. They tell a love story that exists on many levels. My love for a man who proposed on our first date, our purchase of an olive farm in France, the Mediterranean, its history and cultures. They are also travel books with a bit of history thrown in. My latest novel is THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF.
On Writing by Stephen King - Not only is this one of the very best books on the art of writing and the skills required to become a writer, it is also a very intimate story of King's own life. It is honest, succinct, and very modest. It is a love story too. We read how his wife, Tabitha King, helped him through alcohol and drug addiction and, later, the long recovery process after a van ran into him and nearly killed him. Always, along King's journey, is his work and Mrs King, the beloved lady at his side. This book is one of my Bibles.
Wartime Notebooks by Marguerite Duras - A memoir of 1940s France. Some of you might already know that Duras is one of my heroines. Her novel, The Lover, is one of my all-time favourites. This memoir is complied from a series of four notebooks. Duras recounts episodes from her adolescent years in Indochina and onwards through the war years in France and the Résistance. This work is remarkable, searing in its honesty. Its views of war, grief and loss are unforgettable.
Joys and Sorrows by Pablo Casals - This is not precisely autobiography so a bit of a cheat but Casals is a man you must meet. These are memoirs, remembered moments told to Albert. E. Kahn, a lifelong friend of Casals. Casals was possibly the greatest cellist of the twentieth century. He lived in France after his self-imposed exile at the end of the Spanish Civil War. His life was remarkable. He knew everyone, claimed kings and queens and many prominent artists as friends. Not only will this book introduce you to a great artist but also to a man with immense integrity.
Author of DARLING (4th Estate, HarperCollins). After King’s College London, she worked in publishing, won a fiction award and freelanced for 12 years before writing her debut novel.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou - This vibrant, sad, shocking and joyous memoir of surviving life (and even triumphing) had a powerful impact on me when I was a young girl on the cusp of teenage life. Maya Angelou writes with a rare voice: by turns wry, or angry at injustices, or vivacious and light, she takes you into her confidence as if you're an old friend. This book became a part of me.
Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry - Stephen Fry has long held 'National Treasure' status, but I knew far less about him when I first read Moab. I was astonished that, other than a bit of a way with words, we also had much in common as regards the coming-of-age angst department. This book really spoke to me in my teens - at one point I felt that it saved me. (I've been meaning to tell him that at the last few book events we've both attended... maybe next time!)
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela - This is a rare reading experience, a chance to get inside the mind of greatness. I used to watch Mandela on TV and marvel: how can you be so calm and positive after what they did to you and your people? So I read about all he endured and achieved in South Africa, about his time incarcerated on Robben Island and about starting on the path to becoming that wise world leader, the most beloved of his time. It's so humbling to read this book. Beyond inspiring.
I read all types and genres of books, but my real passion is for non-fiction, in particular travel, natural history, history and science. I also love science fiction and fantasy and try to read some contemporary fiction along the way too.
Patrick Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper - Until I picked this book up by chance in the library I had never heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor. This is the story of his life from his great trudge across Europe to Istanbul, his wartime action and his life as a writer. A well written, book by a person who knew him.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson - Steve Jobs redefined the computing industry and then redefined the phone. To understand what drove him Isaacson interviewed him many times to create this book. At times searingly honest, this is a comprehensive profile of a man who became a tech idol.
The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry - He has become a national treasure and this is an insight into his life as a public figure, author, actor and director. If you like the man then you'll love this book.
Deborah is the Managing Director and Co-Owner of LoveReading and a self-confessed bookworm. With a background in magazine publishing, Deborah’s love of books and passion for literacy which includes her role as a School Governor, led her to us and she has steered the Good Ship LoveReading since September 2017 when its ownership changed.
Educated by Tara Westover - This extraordinary story of Tara Westover just blew my mind. Tara was raised in rural Idaho, in a household entrenched in poverty, so removed from society and controlled by a father with rigid religious beliefs and to top it all off an abusive brother.
Despite not entering a classroom until she was 17, through education, self-education Tara triumphs with her finally earning her doctorate at Cambridge. This is her story of reinvention, of her finding her feet and her voice after such a traumatic start in life.
Not a big memoir reader, this is an inspiring tale from one incredible individual and although it was difficult to read and comprehend in parts, I could not put it down.
Becoming by Michelle Obama - I was dying to read this book and it did not disappoint. It is an incredible story, beautifully told with humour and warmth and I could almost hear Michelle reading it to me as I flew through the pages. One of the most iconic women of our era, it was fascinating to read her story, and understand her journey from the South Side of Chicago to her time spent in The White House as First Lady.
I didn’t know much about her background previously and hers is a powerful story of humble beginnings and outstanding achievements leading to Princeton University and Harvard Law, to her early career as a lawyer at the law firm Sidley Austin where she met Barack Obama.
Her intelligence and grace shines from every page and I was enthralled as she took us on her journey with Barack from law to the Presidency and seeing the development of their relationship every step of the way. A captivating read.
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay - Interminably long hours being pulled from pillar to post, shifts peppered with horror stories and tears of joy this is the memoir of a sharp-witted storyteller which made me laugh, cry and everything in between. A brilliant book that must be read to really understand the daily battles of our doctors in the NHS.⮝
What do you think of our list?
What do you think about this list of autobiographies we love?
Is your favourite mentioned here?
We asked our contributors to pick their top 3, but of course there are many more we could have featured. By asking people to choose their top 3 we have produced a meaty list of suggestions for you.
When talking about the best-written autobiographies ever, we are missing a few absolute classics that have not been mentioned here, books like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl', Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, the first autobiography I ever read Frank McCourt's heart-breaking memoir Angela's Ashes. However, we wanted this to be a pure list of books from the hearts of our trusted friends and so we have left it as it is. Pure unadulterated recommendations, without worrying about anything missing, we have built a lovely list of books for the most avid of autobiography fans.
We hope you enjoy reading this list as much as us!