Top 100 Memoirs: Which Ones are Essential?

Embarrassing story:  When I was a newbie grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, I turned in a review of a book that my professor did not recognize.  He asked me why I chose this book to review.  I responded, “Because it was on my shelf.” He looked horrified.

As Paul Newman might say, “This was a failure to communicate.” I thought I was bringing the value of simplicity and economy to the process.  My professor saw only shoddy thinking or academic sloth.

I named this blog 100 memoirs because of the advice given by Heather Sellers in Chapter by Chapter to read 100 books in the genre you aspire to. I have several thousand books in my basement library, collected over many years of being an English professor and avid reader.  I knew I had read 50-100 autobiographies and biographies. But I began buying new ones.  My future daughter-in-law works in the publishing industry, so new memoir began pouring in. Thanks, Chelsea!

So the question now is.  Which ones are best?  If reading forms the mind, and if reading takes precious time, then surely one wants to read the best 100 memoirs and not just 100 memoirs!?

When a form becomes popular enough long enough, a canon emerges. That may be happening in the memoir genre right now.  Perhaps you and I can contribute to that process by defining what we admire most and selecting memoirs that fit those criteria.  Or, we could flip the process by naming the books and then describing what makes them great. More and more courses are being taught about autobiography and memoir. Professors are creating reading lists and these eventually become the canon.

The beautiful sentences contest taught me that asking for the best without describing the criteria can produce frustration.  So let’s start with criteria.

I will throw out one criterion and give an example. Then I hope you will follow with your own examples or another criterion.

Criterion:  Authentic voice.  Agents and publishers love this word. And I do too. Voice on the surface looks like personality.  For example, Julia Childs’ memoir of her years in Paris and America as she built her career sounds just like her distinctive voice on the air–a little breathless and patrician without sounding pedantic.

Haven Kimmel’s voice in her breakthrough memoir Zippy is down home and mystical and amused (therefore amusing).

Classic memoirs earn their status in part because of the unique voice of the author. Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, for example, takes you far, fast. You move with him through the quotidian details of the day with energy.  When he is hungry, his readers are also. He gets you to the destination rapidly, but your senses are more alive than if you had lingered for hours on the path.

Natalie Goldberg’s newest book on memoir contains a list of her favorite memoirs at the end.  Some Amazon reviewers have made lists of their best ones.  I would like to create my own here. But I need your help. I may also need Anthony’s help with the technology.  I think I need a list on the home page of this website. That way, readers can see it emerge.  There are books I reviewed in the blog that I would not put on the list of 100 best. And there are many on other people’s lists that I have not yet read.  There are also lots of books I have read but not reviewed.

Are such lists helpful to you? Would you like to see a list on the home page?

Is authentic voice a useful criterion for selecting high quality memoir?

What one memoir (or other book)  stands out for you because of the voice of the author?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Lists, Personal Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Top 100 Memoirs: Which Ones are Essential?

  1. Shirley says:

    Here's a helpful listmania list from Amazon of classic autobiography/memoir heavily tilted, as classic lists are, to those older writers, many of them no longer living.http://www.amazon.com/Twenty-Five-nbsp-Magnific

  2. Eyal Raviv says:

    A. Such lists are helpful and I would you like to see a list on the home pageB. Authentic voice is THE criterion I use for selecting and appreciating high quality memoir?C. The memoir that stands out for me because of the voice of the author is Shimon Peres's autobiography. Peres, the current President of Israel, wrote this book at what seemed the twilight of his career years ago. He had every reason to be self serving and insincere (qualities people saw in him). He wrote a personal life story which resonated with humility and authenticity. I felt I heard his voice.

  3. A list on the home page would be a great idea. We all struggle with time–its the most precious commodity we have…you can only spend a moment once and then its gone. I frequently listen to books on my iPod as one way to make time for “reading.” Really good narrators can certainly bring the subjects to life.Authentic voice is an important criteria. I would add insight as another important component–perhaps insight comes with authenticity. Although I don't read much non-fiction, and fewer biographies, the ones I have enjoyed the most are those where I cac gain some insight about the environment/world/context the subject lives in.

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Eyal. I suppose you heard Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald today?I appreciate this Israeli perspective on Peres's autobiography. Does he talk about his spiritual life in this book?

  5. shirleyhs says:

    Marilyn, thanks for the vote on the list. And thanks for voting for voice and adding a new criterion–insight, especially insight that takes us to another world. “There is no frigate like a book”–Emily Dickinson.

  6. Gutsywriter says:

    To me, it's all about an authentic voice with a splash of humor and travel. I don't know if you read, “A trip to the Beach,” by Melinda Blanchard, but that memoir made me fall in love with the Caribbean.J. Marteen Troost's books, on Fiji, Vanuatu and Kiribati, are alss memoirs where his voice speaks to me directly.

  7. shirleyhs says:

    I guess the travel memoir is becoming a specialized subgenre of its own. I have not read the Melinda Blanchard memoir–but I would love if you would write a guest blog post and focus on voice and place. Would you be able to do that?

  8. Pingback: 100Memoirs.com Reaches 100 Posts: A Mini-Memoir | 100 Memoirs

  9. Becki says:

    Four awesome memoirs:1. The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman's Searchfor the Meaning of Wife by Janna Cawrse Esarey2. Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott3. I Loved I Lost I Made Spahgetti by Giulia Melucci4. I'm Down: A Memoir by Mishna Wolff

  10. shirleyhs says:

    Becki, thanks so much for these suggestions. I have only read Anne Lamott from your list, so I am especially grateful to have your four books. I hope to get back to building a list soon. Such hard work with memoirs spilling off the presses every day! That's why I need friends like you. Hope you come back soon.

  11. Becki says:

    Four awesome memoirs:1. The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman's Searchfor the Meaning of Wife by Janna Cawrse Esarey2. Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott3. I Loved I Lost I Made Spahgetti by Giulia Melucci4. I'm Down: A Memoir by Mishna Wolff

  12. shirleyhs says:

    Becki, thanks so much for these suggestions. I have only read Anne Lamott from your list, so I am especially grateful to have your four books. I hope to get back to building a list soon. Such hard work with memoirs spilling off the presses every day! That's why I need friends like you. Hope you come back soon.

  13. shirleyhs says:

    Since this post is one of the most frequently opened ones on this site, and since many people are actually looking for lists when they search on 100 memoirs, please go to the category section of the page above on the right and find “lists” as a category. If you click on that, you will find many posts that include lists of best memoirs. Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History is great for lists also.

  14. iman says:

    I love reading memoirs.. the best memoir ive read is In Search of Fatima By Ghada Karmi it's AMAZING!! and i also love Jean Sasson Books ; Love in a torn land and Mayada Daughter of Iraq.. Tears of The Desert By Halima Bashir and Damien Lewis .. it's touching and soo sad!

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