The New York Times has just published a list of the best 50 memoirs of the past 50 years, and this inspired me to make a meta-list of the best memoirs and autobiographies of all time. I started with the Times list, then I found about a dozen additional lists of best memoirs/autobiographies on the Internet. I combined all the lists into a single meta-list. You can look at the list in rank order (that is, with the books on the most lists at the top) or chronological order.
Here are the lists:
Best Memoirs and Autobiographies of All Time – Ranked
Best Memoirs and Autobiographies of All Time – Chronological
What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? Here’s how I understand it: an autobiography usually tells the story of a significant portion of the author’s life. A memoir can tell the story of one incident, a series of events, or a period in a person’s life. These categories overlap quite a bit. I think every autobiography is a memoir, but not every memoir is an autobiography.
As you can see from the meta-list, many of the memoirs are quite recent and there are very few from before the 20th Century. I was particularly disappointed to see that Augustine’s Confessions (c. 400 CE) and Rousseau’s Confessions (1782, 1789) didn’t make the list. I would also have loved to have seen more books from non-English speaking countries. (There are a few, but they are mostly older: Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, and Elie Weisel’s Night, for example.)