My Top Ten All Time Autobiography and Memoir
Great undertakings are made greater by those willing to share through writing the insights obtained firsthand in the course of their exploits. There is thus great value in the autobiographical writing of great men and women. Let me preface this top ten list with the caveat that there are a ton of autobiographies and memoirs that I have not read, so their exclusion from this list is largely due to lack of breadth of my reading thus far, rather than lack of quality of the works. Nonetheless, here are my picks so far. I’m looking forward to revising the list (and including some women) as my reading branches out further.
Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King. This might not strictly qualify as autobiography for some, but its content is autobiographical, so I think it belongs here. My first contact with this work was in high school, when I read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which is part of the larger work. I returned to Why We Can’t Wait in the fall of 2017. I’m not sure what prompted me to read it, but I remember it brought me to tears. King has become iconized in American cultural memory, a process that makes a complex individual monolithic. I thought reading Marshall Frady’s biography of King was helpful to reinstill that complexity. Perhaps the only thing more inspiring than reading Why We Can’t Wait is hearing the man speak.
2. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. I read this in 2013 so it’s coming up on a decade. This is definitely a return-to read. It’s relatively short but has a lot of wisdom within. A collection of the Roman philosopher emperor’s personal writing to himself, it was never intended to be widely consumed but has made Aurelius one of the prominent voices in Stoic philosophy.
3. When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. Written by a man who loved neurosurgery and T.S. Eliot, I can really respect this guy’s breadth of interests. An inspiring story of a young man facing down imminent death, this book is really beautiful. Kalanithi’s writing is great, but I also found the epilogue, written by his wife, to be particularly moving.
4. Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey. I was given this book as a gift recently and I might never have picked it up otherwise, not having been very familiar with the man, other than having seen a handful of his movies and True Detective (which is awesome). So I was pleasantly surprised that I couldn’t put this down. McConaughey has a respect for the process of living through introspection and reflection that I found very engrossing to read.
5. Wisdom for the Way, by Bruce Lee. This is more a book of quotes than anything else, and I plan to read Striking Thoughts to get to know Bruce better, but this little book is packed with great lines. “Be water, my friend.”
6. Autobiography of Malcom X: As Told to Alex Haley. I read this in 2003, so it’s now been quite a while, but this is one of those books that changed my perspective on history. My conception of Malcom prior to reading this was just a sense of his anger. Like King, the person is so much more complex than the broad brush of cultural memory. The prose is not beautiful (sorry Alex Haley), but the life story is compelling.
7. Jarhead, by Anthony Swofford. There are many stories of the incredible experiences and perspectives of those who have served our country in uniform. Swofford not only has the experience and the perspective, but also the ability to write great prose.
8. Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson. Simpson plummeted into a crevasse when his climbing partner was forced to cut the rope, unable to pull him to safety during a climb in the Andes. The sheer force of will to survive is palpable in this incredible survival story. I read this while traveling in Peru. Fortunately, my own backpacking through that country did not meet with any situations quite so extreme.
10. Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, by David Goggins. I can’t decide if Goggins is a genius or just someone willing to completely destroy his body with physical endeavors. Either way, his mental and physical accomplishments are astounding. The story of how he converted a life of trauma to a life of achievement is as inspiring as it is impressive.
Honorable mention: The Making of a Surgeon by William Nolen, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, by Nate Jackson