There are thousands of autobiographies published and republished every year. And, honestly, a lot of them suck. It seems like every day that an entitled, opinionated celebrity decides to divulge their secrets to the public by publishing their life story in a book they probably didn’t even write. Can you tell I am a bit cynical about autobiographies?
But every once in a while, there is an autobiography that you read that really sticks with you. That makes you cry. Makes you laugh. Makes you glimpse into the soul of another human being.
So here is my list of the nine best autobiographies ever written.
9. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
No, I’m not talking about the One Direction song. I am talking about the classical autobiography by Helen Keller published in 1903.
If you have been living under a rock and know nothing of this famous woman, let me enlighten you. Helen Keller was an author, lecturer, and political activist. Is that all? No. She was also blind and deaf. Helen was not born deaf, no. Instead, when she was under two years old she suffered from an illness which has been speculated to have been scarlet fever. Whatever it was, it left her deaf and blind and completely isolated from the world.
That is, until Anne Sullivan arrived to teach her, using techniques documented in this famous autobiography. Sullivan enables Helen to learn language, changing her life forever.
This autobiography is touching and poignant. It teaches that anyone can learn, and that simply because a person has a type of disability does not mean they cannot do exceptional thing. Helen Keller teaches us all a deeper lesson than Anne Sullivan ever taught her.
8. Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog by John Grogan
On a lighter topic, I think all of us have either had a dog or known a dog. If you’ve owned a dog, you probably know the love and trouble of raising one of these evil creatures. They tear into your shoes. They tramp dirt all through your clean house. And they wheedle their way into your hearts.
Published in 2005, Marley and Me documents John and his family’s life with his Labrador Retriever Marley over a thirteen year span. Most might be familiar with this story due to the film adaptation in 2008 starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.
The simple story is surprisingly deep as it shows us what amazing lessons a dog can teach. What joy and what trouble one creature can bring into our lives. This book will make you laugh and cry, but, most importantly, it can show you the blessings pets can bring into our boring lives.
And that ending…be prepared for the ending. If you are not sobbing, I do not think you have a heart.
7. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
Odds are you have probably never heard of this book or its author, but I will bet you know him by another name: Lawrence of Arabia. The very real Thomas Edward Lawrence first traveled to the Middle East in 1910 to work as a historian and began writing a book about seven great cities of the Middle East. However, when the Arab Revolt broke out in 1916, Lawrence left the work unfinished and claimed to have destroyed the original draft. Instead of writing a scholarly piece, he instead kept the title and wrote an autobiography of his first-hand witness of the war.
There is some speculation that Lawrence’s tale is partially exaggerated and there are many different versions he wrote and rewrote again (this is why you will still find very different editions). Still, the story of this obscure archaeologist who helped lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks is moving and exquisitely written. The descriptions are detailed and the action is incredible.
Not only does it help us to understand the modern Middle East, but it is also an indispensable historical documentation of a war mostly forgotten under the cloud of World War I. I highly recommend this novel.
6. Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates
“Just as Larry Newton, one of the most notorious inmates at Indiana Federal Prison, was trying to break out of jail, Dr. Laura Bates was trying to break in. She had created the world’s first Shakespeare class in supermax – the solitary confinement unit.”
Thus starts an amazing novel. Published quite recently in 2013, this is an autobiography about how this doctor’s teachings changed one man’s life drastically through love of literature. In Shakespeare’s characters, Newton sees himself.
As a reader who knows how very real books can become, I sit in awe of this story of how literature can change lives. While not the most complex reading material, this book will make you want to read Shakespeare even if you have despised it all your life.
It is much more uplifting and cheerful than many of the books on my list, and yet it has a true grittiness that only reality can illicit.
5. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
This book I only learned about quite recently, due to the 2013 adaptation film starring Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain. This memoir tells the stories of a young Oxford student who leaves her studies to become a nurse during World War I. Originally published in 1933, it is a brilliant documentation of the first great war. In many ways, it sets the standard of memoirs followed by many authors after Brittain.
Do not go into this book hoping for a happy ending, for you shall not get one. However, it looks at that first great war in a very present way when we in the modern age see it as distant. This war, indeed, changed the way all wars afterwards were fought and the increased the fear of war. And this book, in many ways, captures those fears and sentiments.
Like the title suggests, these sheltered youths had to endure the fires of hell for their country. It also shows the effects of the war on the average British civilian, not simply stopping the moment ceasefire was called. I love how to book begins with a forward by Brittain, stating that she had planned to write the story as fictional, changing the names of real people. But she could not. It was too real to her.
While I was not entirely pleased with the movie adaptation, this book is simply brilliant and a must read for any history buff.
4. Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man) by Primo Levi
We come yet again to another war autobiography, this one far more disturbing that any of those I have mentioned previously. Titled in America as Survival in Auschwitz, this book tells the story of Levi, who endures ten months in the infamous German death camp: Auschwitz. It rips at your heart as Levi witnesses and endures such unspeakable torments that no human should even have to endure.
The style of the book is surprisingly simple, making the shocking content seem even more real. If you are easily disturbed by violence, this book will not be for you. But, for me, it is one of the best examples of the inside story of what happened inside these labor camps.
3. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux by Thérèse de Lisieux
If you are not religious, than this book is probably not your forte. First published in 1898, it tells the story of a French Carmelite nun’s life written on her deathbed about her childhood, her struggles to become a nun, and her simple journey of becoming holy.
As she was dying from tuberculosis, her sister Pauline begged her to write her journey, as Therese referred to as her “Little Way.” After her death at age 24 in 1897, Pauline put together the writings into one book, as a way to aid all Catholics in becoming more holy.
It is a truly moving piece and, if you are not religious before you read this, by the end you may change your mind. Not only does it deeply delve into understanding of the world, sin, and goodness, but it also shows that a simple life is the best. The way of a child—their wonder, love, and beauty—should be emulated by everyone.
2. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBridge
Back when I was in college, this was one of the few books I was forced to read that was actually impressive. Published in 1997, the title tells it all. James McBridge tells of his life growing up with a white mother, Ruth.
For me, I found it so interesting because of many of the messages within this story. Such as, no matter your race, background, or skills, you can do anything if you put your mind to it. One detail of brilliance in the novel was when Ruth forced all her children to read one book per week and write her a review of it, in order for them to be more educated. It was only years later that James learned she could not read. All those years, he had been giving her papers and she was looking over it, pretending to read, just so that her children would see the importance of education.
Most people are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech, where he mentioned how he wants to see a black man and a white man sit beside each other as friends, with no care about race. I think that idea is lost in this modern culture where race means everything. This book seems to epitomize that speech. A white woman, raising half-black children, instilled them with the important of learning. She didn’t care about race. She cared about knowledge.
It is a brilliant book, and one of my favorite autobiographies of all time.
1. The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
No list of autobiographies would be complete without this entry. This famous diary tells the tale of a young thirteen-year-old Jewish girl hiding from the Germans in 1942. The diary she kept for more than a year was found in the attic in which she and her family hid before they were discovered and taken to concentration camps.
This is the second World War II autobiography on my list, but it takes a very different view than Levi’s story. And, of course, Anne’s story has a tragic ending. Out of the entire family, only Anne’s father survived the war.
One of the interesting things about this diary is the innocence it contains. Anne was only thirteen when she began to write it. She was a child who should never have been exposed to the horrors she endured. In a way, her story is a warning that what happened in Germany in World War II must never been allowed to happen again. History, however, has a way of repeating itself.
Autobiographies are like a photograph. They are memories captured through the eyes of another person. Someone we can learn a great deal from—whether or not we agree with them. These are just a few of my favorites. What is your favorite autobiography? And, as always,
Best luck in your life full of adventure,