Sometimes there are stories inside that are bound to be told. And, thankfully, great people, hurt people, vulnerable people and people who have had their lives transformed—for better or worse—have jotted down their compelling stories so that we can all be touched by them.
Autobiographies are a window into the soul and sometimes they are so powerful they can change the reader. Here are our top picks of the 10 you should read at least once in your life.
Wild | Cheryl Strayed
In a powerful journey from lost to found, this is the compelling autobiography of Cheryl Strayed. At 26 she had lost everything—her mother to cancer, her marriage and her home. She decided to take the empowering step of walking eleven hundred miles along the East Coast of America—alone. It is a brave and harrowing decision that sees Strayed pushed to her physical, mental and emotional limits. But in the wilderness there are no parties or drugs to escape within and so slowly and surely she begins to confront her past, forgive herself and dream of a future that isn’t self-destructive.
“How wild it was, to let it be,” she writes.
While many know the movie starring Reese Witherspoon, Wild is also worth putting on your must-read list. Wild is raw, true and ultimately heart-warming.
The Diary Of A Young Girl | Anne Frank
With the threat of WWII breathing down her neck, Anne Frank received a diary for her 13th birthday. Little did she know that she would spend two years in hiding with her parents and sister and record every brave, terrified and beautiful moment they spent together. Written in Dutch, it was later translated into English with much acclaim.
“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” she writes.
Later, Anne and her family were caught and sent to a concentration camp and she sadly died of typhus. But her insights and her words in The Diary of a Young Girl continued to touch hearts long after her last breath.
The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell | Marilyn Manson
Full disclosure: this book will shake you to the core. There are parts that are revolting, sexist and chilling. That said, you won’t be able to put it down. From his Christian upbringing, Manson takes the reader deep into his life—from backstage at rock concerts to jail and beyond. It’s a compelling read about the man who shook the world. At his peak, an atheist and an elitist, Manson was feared by many. He was accused of being at least somewhat responsible for influencing Klebold and Harris, who were the deadly killers of 13 souls at Columbine High School.
“I walked away exhilarated by my success, because there's nothing like making a difference in someone's life, even if that difference is a lifetime of nightmares and a fortune in therapy bills,” he writes in The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell.
It’s a book that will take you places you’d rather not go. Indulge if you have morbid curiosity, but be warned, you’ll remember it long after you’ve put it down—even when you’d rather forget.
The Anti Cool Girl | Rosie Waterland
The Anti Cool Girl is another book that will take you down the rabbit hole that is the dark side of humanity. If anyone had a rough start in life, it is Rosie Waterland. In this book she doesn’t hold back from abuse, alcoholism and battling weight issues. Spending her life trying to fit in, one day she has an epiphany and decides to live her life as she really is—an anti cool girl.
Her claim to fame was writing pithy recaps of the Bachelor series but expect none of this in this book. There literally is no subject that she won’t hold back on, even if it is shitting the bed.
It’s a book that will have you horrified one moment and then laughing out loud at the next.
Long Walk To Freedom | Nelson Mandela
The face of peace for multiple generations, Long Walk To Freedom chronicles Nelson Mandela’s early years and the 27 years he spent in prison in South Africa. Winning the hearts the world over, a Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of South Africa, he is one of the most memorable people of our time.
“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” he writes. “Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
At 700 words, this isn’t a light read, but Long Walk To Freedom is a book that everyone should read at least once.
The Year Of Magical Thinking | Joan Didion
One of America’s most iconic writers, including writing for Vogue, novels and non-fiction books, she turned her pen towards grief in the year following the death of her husband, John Dunne. In the days before Christmas, 2003, the pair watched as their adopted daughter, Quintana, fell ill with what seemed like the ‘flu. But, it soon turned from pneumonia to septic shock and she was placed on life support in an induced coma.
“Life changes in the instant,” she writes. “The ordinary instant.”
And then, the night before New Year’s Eve, Dunne suffers a fatal heart attack and Didion’s world is changed forever.
While their daughter did pull through, a short time later, a slip resulted in a brain bleed. The Year Of Magical Thinking is Didion’s way of clawing through the grief and trying to make sense of all that has happened to her. A powerful insight into mourning, it has been criticized for its lack of raw emotion, but it doesn’t make it any less rewarding of a book.
Daring To Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening | Manal Al-Sharif
While most Western women take advantage of the right to drive, there are millions around the world who are not afforded this luxury. And so it was with Manal Al-Sharif. Growing up a religious radical (she even went so far as burning her brother’s cassettes because the music was forbidden), her feelings changed when she trained as a computer security engineer and she began to see hypocrisy all around her.
“How odd it is that we judge a woman by her clothes and the place she eats lunch and the subjects she talks about with her colleagues on her coffee break, yet we don’t judge a man if he doesn’t grow his beard or if he works with women or speaks to them,” she writes. “Why do Saudi women allow subjugation to a man and adhere to men’s rules and conditions? Why did I?”
Challenging the status quo, Daring To Drive, tells Al-Sharif’s rise to accidental activist as she fought for the right for women to drive—and won.
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft | Stephen King
Whether you’re a budding writer or an avid reader, On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft is a must read. The author of more than 50 books that have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide, King is a master storyteller. But, not just any stories—his writing has sent chills down spines and led to many a nightmare. Beginning with his childhood, King recounts his battle with drugs and alcohol and the incident that almost killed him while he was writing the book. In the second half, he moves into the craft of writing, encouraging people to stop overthinking, forget the blocks and just do it. More than a book on writing, this is a book about life.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings | Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s talent for words will have you swept—uncomfortably and completely—into her childhood, growing up in the Southern states of America. From living with her grandmother in a small town, to being raped by a much older man at the age of eight, Angelou doesn’t hold back from revealing the trauma she endured. It worsened when she told her mother of the rape and later the rapist was killed and she blamed herself. Fearful, she became a selective mute and turned to great literary works to fill her mind.
“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision,” she writes. “Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflict than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.”
Graduating ahead of her year group and setting the stage for what would become one of the greatest literary voices, Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must read.
Open: An Autobiography | Andre Agassi
From one of the most talented people to ever set foot on a tennis court comes an autobiography that is both compelling and shocking. His rise to success was not without a cost. His training started as a young child and at age 13 he was at a Florida tennis camp—which he hated. Rebellious, the talented teenager became a pro at the tender age of 16 and he writes of his professional and personal heartbreaks before winning Wimbledon in 1992. A force of nature both on and off the court, he writes candidly about his relationship with Brooke Shields and later his loss of confidence.
“Life will throw everything but the kitchen sink in your path, and then it will throw the kitchen sink. It's your job to avoid the obstacles,” he writes. “If you let them stop you or distract you, you're not doing your job, and failing to do your job will cause regrets that paralyze you more than a bad back.”
But Open: An Autobiography is a tale of resurrection—he made a comeback to tennis as the eldest number one player in history.
Looking for more book inspo? Here are 10 books that will change the way you think.