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History: Historical Memoir


What Is an Autobiography?

An autobiography (Greek for “self life write”) is a first-person-point-of-view account of a person’s entire life. An autobiography is a chronicle of the author’s life, including rise to fame, power, money, or talent.

Autobiographies are more formal than memoirs because they emphasize facts. Autobiographies often tell stories close to or exactly how they happened, which means they often feature straightforward language and chronological narration. Facts are checked to ensure accuracy.

What Is a Memoir?

Memoirs are a format in which writers use their life experience in service of a larger theme or idea. A reader might pick up a memoir because they’re interested in the theme, rather than because they want to read about the writer.

The philosophy of memoir-writing is also very different from autobiography-writing. Where autobiographies emphasize facts, memoirs (French for “memory” or “reminisce”) focus on personal experience, intimacy, and emotional truth—memoir writers often play with their memories and with real life in order to tell a good story. For this reason, memoirs are not bound to formal expectations around chronology or factual accuracy.

Excerpted from


Memoirs are typically:

  • less formal and less encompassing
  • more concerned with emotional truth towards a particular section of one’s life and how it makes you feel now
  • less obsessed with factual events
  • written by the subject

Autobiographies are usually:

  • written by the main character or at least drafted with a collaborative writer
  • made up of detailed, chronologic events, places, reactions, movements and other relevant information which inhabited the life of the subject
  • focused on facts -  fact, above all, is its foundation


  • Refers to an account that tells someone else's life story
  • Can be written, with or without the authorization of the subject
  • Written in the 3rd person with the purpose to inform
  • Based on facts collected by the author

Differences between biography and autobiography. (2017, May 11). Retrieved from difference-between-biography-and autobiography.html#ComparisonChart

The fundamental differences between memoir and autobiography. (2019). Retrieved from Differences-Between-Memoir-AutoBiography.aspx

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The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years

The New York Times’s book critics select the most outstanding memoirs published since 1969.

Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987

In this deeply etched and haunting memoir, Vivian Gornick tells the story of her lifelong battle with her mother for independence.

The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976

A Chinese American woman tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006

In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father.

The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr, Viking, 1995

In this funny, devastating, haunting memoir, Karr looks back at life with a painter mother, seven times married, whose outlaw spirit could tip over into psychosis, and a hard-drinking, fist-swinging father

Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens, Twelve, 2010

He is a fervent atheist, raised as a Christian, by a mother whose Jewish heritage was not revealed to him until her suicide.

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury, 2013

In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life, to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Why?

Palimpsest, Gore Vidal, Random House, 1995

Written from the vantage point of Vidal's library in his villa on the Italian coast. As visitors come and go, his memory ranges back and forth across a rich history.

Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel, A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company, 2003

In postwar rural England, Hilary Mantel acquired a persistent pain that led to destructive drugs and patronizing psychiatry, ending in an ineffective but irrevocable surgery.

A Childhood, Harry Crews, Harper & Row, 1978

Crews was born in the middle of the Great Depression, in a one-room sharecropper's cabin at the end of a dirt road in rural South Georgia.

Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama, Times Books/Random House, 1995

The son of a black African father and a white American mother searches for a workable meaning to his life as a black American.

Patrimony, Philip Roth, Simon & Schuster, 1991

Roth watches as his eighty-six-year-old father—famous for his vigor, charm, and his repertoire of Newark recollections—battles with the brain tumor that will kill him.

All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, Theodore Rosengarten, Alfred A. Knopf, 1974

Theodore Rosengarten, the student, had found a black Homer, with the almost frightening power of memory in a man who could neither read nor write.

Lives Other Than My Own, Emmanuel Carrère. Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale., Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, 2011

The story of two families—shattered and ultimately restored. What he accomplishes is nothing short of a literary miracle: a heartrending narrative of endless love, a meditation on courage and decency

A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz. Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange., Harcourt, 2004

It is the story of a boy growing up in the war-torn Jerusalem of the forties and fifties, in a small apartment crowded with books.

This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff, The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989

Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move, yet they develop an extraordinarily close, almost telepathic relationship.

A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk, Picador, 2002

An education in babies, books, breast-feeding, toddler groups, broken nights, bad advice and never being alone

Boyhood, J.M. Coetzee, Viking, 1997

Coetzee grew up in a new development north of Cape Town, tormented by guilt and fear, with a father he despised, and a mother he both adored and resented.

Conundrum, Jan Morris, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974

One of the earliest books to discuss transsexuality with honesty. James Morris distinguished himself in the British military, became a successful and physically daring reporter.

Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

On the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the tsunami she miraculously survived.

Always Unreliable: Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England and May Week Was in June, Clive James, Picador, 2004

Hilarious adventures growing up in post-war Sydney are deliciously recounted

Travels With Lizbeth, Lars Eighner, St. Martin’s Press, 1993

One man's experience of homelessness, a story of physical survival and the triumph of the artistic spirit in the face of enormous adversity.

Hold Still, Sally Mann, Little, Brown & Company, 2015

Mann's preoccupation with family, race, mortality, and the storied landscape of the American South are revealed by the family history that precedes her.

Country Girl, Edna O’Brien, Little, Brown and Company, 2013

This earthy and evocative book traces O’Brien’s youth and her development as a writer.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi. Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris., Pantheon, 2003

In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime and the triumph of the Islamic Revolution

Negroland, Margo Jefferson, Pantheon, 2015

A deeply felt meditation on race, sex, and American culture through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education among a black elite concerned with distancing itself from whites

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2014

Viv Albertine is one of a handful of original punks who changed music, and the discourse around it, forever.

Experience, Martin Amis, Talk Miramax Books/Hyperion, 2000

Amis explores his relationship with this father, comic novelist Kingsley Amis, and writes about the various crises of Kingsley's life.

Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz, Alfred A. Knopf, 1977

Babitz captured the voluptuous quality of L.A. in the 1960s in a wildly original, totally unique voice.

Growing Up, Russell Baker, Congdon & Weed, 1982

Kafka Was the Rag, Anatole Broyard, Carol Southern Books/Crown Publishers, 1993

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Spiegel & Grau, 2015

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

Barbarian Days, William Finnegan, Penguin Press, 2015

Personal History, Katharine Graham, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997

Thinking in Pictures, Temple Grandin, Doubleday, 1995

Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy, Houghton Mifflin, 1994

Dancing With Cuba, Alma Guillermoprieto. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen., Pantheon, 2004

Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson, Houghton Mifflin, 1983

The Memory Chalet, Tony Just, Penguin Press, 2010

Heavy, Kiese Laymon, Scribner, 2018

Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood, Riverhead Books, 2017

H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald, Grove Press, 2015

The Color of Water, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 1996

Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, Scribner, 1996

Cockroaches, Scholastique Mukasonga. Translated from the French by Jordan Stump., Archipelago Books, 2016

Life, Keith Richards, Little, Brown & Company, 2010

A Life in the Twentieth Century, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000

My Lives, Edmund White, Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2006

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson, Grove Press, 2012

Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz, Vintage, 1991