When I’m not sure what to read next, I often turn to memoir. My own reading habits skew towards fiction, and a good memoir allows me to read nonfiction that is still driven by story, in much the same way a good novel is.
In recent years, I’ve noticed the rise of memoir-in-essays, as well as memoirs that play with the format in interesting ways. (You know I’m a total nerd when it comes to format and structure, right?) A bonus: memoirs told in essays, stories, and snapshots are a great option for anyone dealing with a short attention span, something I admit to struggling with these days.
With books like these, you can read one essay or short chapter at a time or gobble them down in one sitting. The memoirs featured here run the gamut of emotions, from funny and light to poignant and serious. I hope you’ll find a few attractive options for your every reading mood.
We’ve included one graphic memoir; if you’re interested in more along those lines, be sure to check out WSIRN producer Brenna Frederick’s recommendations in Patreon Bonus Episode #79: Comics and graphic novels for the curious. As if that’s not enough, team member Shannan Malone will be sharing the memoirs that changed her life in this Friday’s Patreon bonus episode.
A special note for audiobook fans: I love listening to memoirs, especially when the author reads their own story. Many of these are fantastic in that format.
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16 well-crafted memoirs to read in small bites or one sitting
The debut memoir from Jenny Lawson aka The Bloggess is a compilation of the best stories from her blog plus fresh content. Bless Jenny for being willing to share her most mortifying moments with readers because she makes them laugh-out-loud funny. The chapters have titles like “A Series of Angry Post-It Notes to My Husband” and “And Then I Snuck a Dead Cuban Alligator on an Airplane” to give you an idea of what we’re working with. Heads up: with f-bombs galore and all manner of sexual references, as well as discussion (and photos) of taxidermy experiments, this content is not for everyone. More info →
This is the true story of the twenty-year relationship between a New York writer and a gentlemanly London bookseller, as told through their correspondence. A must-read classic for bibliophiles, you’ll feel compelled to discuss the heartwarming way books bring people together with all your book-loving buddies. If you’re craving a gentle, warm, and witty read, this short book belongs on your nightstand. More info →
I knew very little about Lowe’s career before reading this; I had only seen St Elmo’s Fire
and The West Wing, and didn’t even realize that was him
in Wayne’s World
! Therefore I was constantly surprised by his stories from his unusual childhood, his early acting days, the scope of his current work, and how he seems to know everyone in Hollywood and beyond. My favorite stories were those about JFK Jr and 9/11. This was fantastic on audio; Lowe narrates his own story. More info →
In this collection of coming-of-age essays about his South African childhood, The Daily Show
star does a masterful job of alternating the deathly serious with the laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes even combining the two. His mischievous childhood and unconventional youth provide wonderful fodder for not-quite-polite but always entertaining stories. Trevor Noah narrates the audiobook, which I highly recommend. More info →
These 52 “micro-memoirs” are by turns quirky, witty, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny, and so different from pretty much anything else I’ve ever read. Like rereading a favorite poem, these snippets of story leave much to the readers’ interpretation, and the surprising twists that catch the reader unawares the first time read entirely differently on a repeat visit. Fennelly’s style of relaying smart and sometimes scandalous family stories reminds me of David Sedaris. More info →
In O’Farrell’s memoir-of-sorts, she tells the story of her life through seventeen brushes with death. I didn’t quite believe the premise when I first heard it (Seventeen
), but O’Farrell doesn’t mess around with this heart-pounding collection, in which she recounts near-misses with car accidents, murderers, anaphylaxis, a childhood bout with encephalitis, and more. There’s obviously some sensitive content here, but I’d like to especially point out that O’Farrell’s heart-rending essay on miscarriage is some of the finest writing I’ve seen on the subject. More info →
This is one of the best things I’ve ever listened to—which I did NOT expect from an essay collection. Bragg reads 70-ish pieces of his nonfiction work, most of which have been previously published. Some are just a few minutes long; the longest runs for about fifteen. He covers A LOT of ground: football, fishing, book tour, his mama’s cornbread, wardrobe concerns, New Orleans cuisine, natural disasters. These stories are compact, wistful, funny, and poignant. So good. More info →
I haven’t yet read this myself but several MMD team members raved about it and said it belongs on this list! Gabrielle Union’s memoir-in-essays is a shining example in the sea of celebrity memoirs. She fearlessly shares stories about race, beauty standards, Hollywood, and her own history of sexual assault. The result is moving in many places and laugh-out-loud funny in others. Not everyone can strike the right balance but Union nails it. Her follow-up memoir, You Got Anything Stronger?: Stories
, is out now. More info →
I adored this book; I wish I could download it into my brain. My favorite Kelly Corrigan memoir by a long shot. Kelly talks in depth about how after her friend Liz was diagnosed with cancer, they both pushed past the surface stuff to forge a powerful and enduring friendship. Oriented around her twelve favorite phrases, she gives us a good starting point for figuring out how to improve communication skills with loved ones. This book will make you want to be a better friend, and also give you insight into how. Personal, heartfelt, and really really good. More info →
In her entertaining essay collection, Philpott shares real, relatable stories that feel highly personal yet manage to encompass the universal experience of managing a life that, at times, grows unwieldy. The situations Philpott writes of will be familiar to many readers; after all, we’ve lived them ourselves. But she articulates her own experience in a way that makes you see it again, for the first time—and for that, I am grateful. Funny and poignant, smart and witty, and highly recommended for fans of Kelly Corrigan, Glennon Doyle, and Beth Ann Fennelly. I also loved chatting with Mary Laura Philpott about her favorite memoirs in WSIRN Episode 195: Wanted: book enthusiast at large
, plus she gives an inside look at what it’s like to work at Parnassus Books in Nashville. More info →
Described as a “memoir of sorts”, professor of African American Studies Emily Bernard explores race, motherhood, adoption, and her experience of getting randomly attacked by a stranger with a knife. (That particular essay is understandably difficult to read but you can skip it, if need be. She mentions the content in later essays, but it isn’t vital to know the details.) A nonlinear memoir, the stories aren’t connected in obvious ways but they are all powerful and moving. Bernard notes: “In every scar there’s a story. The salve is the telling itself.” That neatly sums up this collection. More info →
If you love heartfelt, thoughtful memoirs that also make you laugh, then you must pick up this collection of essays by pop-culture critic R. Eric Thomas. Eric shares stories from childhood to adulthood, detailing his coming-of-age with bracing candor and hilarious honesty. He writes about discovering his identity, feeling like an outsider, and finding his voice, all while injecting hilarious pop culture references, bits of wisdom, and his signature wit. While he relays plenty of difficult experiences, his tone is persistently hopeful. I highly recommend the audiobook version, narrated by the author, for full humorous effect. More info →
In this unusual memoir, Bess Kalb tells the story of her grandmother Bobby Bell’s life and their special relationship, using her deceased grandmother’s voice to do so. (On the second page of the book Bobby, speaking from her own funeral, is telling the readers, “It’s a terrible thing to be dead.”) I enjoyed this story so much: Bobby is spry and spunky, fiercely opinionated, a force of nature—and firmly invested in (or committed to meddling
in, depending on how Bess is feeling at the moment) her granddaughter’s life. Bobby’s fierce and sometimes persnickety devotion to Bess shines on every page, from Bess’s birth to Bobby’s dying days at age 90. For most of Bess’s life, the two spoke on the phone every day, and my favorite parts of the book were these phone conversations. More info →
This new release is on my nightstand right now, as trusted fellow readers have called it a luminous grief memoir written in snippets of essays (some longer than others), with a nonlinear structure. I was particularly intrigued by the title: the author’s mother died of cancer when she was 13 and she sometimes experienced her grief by imagining or sensing her mother’s ghost. Chow writes with compassion and grace, illustrating how her family responds to the loss in different ways. More info →
I so appreciate memoirs by poets; this memoir by poet and activist June Jordan’s is told in a series of short and vivid vignettes, detailing her tumultuous upbringing in post-World War II Harlem and Brooklyn, the only child of a father who desperately wanted a son. She captures her childhood voice and memories through rich details. I especially appreciated glimpsing Jordan’s early love of words and rhyme, and the cadence of her storytelling, as she often juxtaposed difficult moments with snapshots capturing childhood delights, like her ardent love for orange juice. More info →
Do you have any uniquely structured memoirs to add to this list? Tell us in the comments!
P.S. Enjoy these 20 travel memoirs to take you around the world and 20 tasty and tantalizing food memoirs to inspire your culinary pursuits.
P.P.S. Find an exclusive list of my favorite autobiography, biography, and memoirs in My Reading Life: A Book Journal, available in bookstores near you!
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