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.
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.)