There’s no doubt that reading an autobiography can greatly shape and broaden your understanding of not only some of the world’s greatest personalities, but also offer interesting perspectives into some of the most important historical events of our time. Here are some of the best autobiographies everyone should read in their life time.
Being a personal account, an autobiography can build an intimate connection with the reader. Well-known personalities tell the story of their lives in their own words, in many cases revealing things that were hidden from the world till the release of the book. We learn about their journey through childhood, struggles, triumphs, love and the events that shaped their destiny.
If you are one of those readers who likes a good memoir or a first-person account, here’s a list of some of the must-read autobiographies that you should have in your list.
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This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong.
Jump To / Table of Contents
- Long Walk to Freedom — Nelson Mandela
- The Diary of a Young Girl — Anne Frank
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou
- The Story of My Experiments with Truth — Mahatma Gandhi
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin — Benjamin Franklin
- An Autobiography — Agatha Christie
- The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story — Lee Hyeon-seo (with David John)
- The Story of My Life — Helen Keller
- Born to Run — Bruce Springsteen
- Open — Andre Agassi
- Autobiography of Mark Twain — Mark Twain
In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela presents a detailed account of his childhood and education, and how the lives of South Africans were affected by apartheid. The book details the struggle of the civil rights icon and the painful experiences he faced for 27 years in different jails, including at the notorious Robben Island Prison.
The heart-wrenching yet inspiring autobiography is one of the two authoritative accounts of the life of the former South African president — the other being Anthony Sampson’s Mandela: An Authorised Biography. The book was adapted into a film in 2013 with Idris Elba playing Mandela.
Published after her death, the autobiography is one of the most telling accounts of the persecution of Jews during the Nazi regime.
Anne, a 13-year-old Jewish girl, began writing the diary in 1942 after her family went into hiding in the ‘Secret Annexe’ following the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. In her diary, which she wrote in Dutch, Anne reflected on teenage crushes, religion, the effects of war and the struggles of the family, including the constant fear of being discovered by the brutal Nazis. In 1944, the family was eventually discovered and sent to a concentration camp where Anne died. Following the publication of the diary, it went on to become one of the most important books of the 20th century. It has been translated into multiple languages and adapted for stage and screen many times.
The book is the first of the seven autobiographies written by Angelou but is the most famous and critically acclaimed. It sheds light on the struggles of the celebrated writer as an African American growing up in rural Arkansas of the 1930s and 40s America. Angelou opens up about the hardships she faced, including abandonment at an early age and rape by an older man which left her traumatised for life.
It is inspiring how Angelou rebuilt her life and fought against racism to become the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco at age 15. Written beautifully, the book ends with her becoming a young mother to a newborn son.
Gandhi is not just the man credited for helping to free India from British rule; he is also the 20th century’s most important apostle of non-violence who ignited the fire of revolution and spark of civil rights in the hearts of icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
In his autobiography, originally written in Gujarati, Gandhi bares all. He talks about his childhood, family, upbringing, religion, marriage to Kasturba as a child, education, journey to South Africa to practise law, the racism he faced, and his eventual return to India to fight for the freedom of the nation.
A brutally honest book, Gandhi reveals his own shortcomings and prejudices about people, politics, religion, society and everything in between, before his transformation into the ‘Mahatma’.
Divided into four parts, Franklin wrote his inspirational autobiography at different places and junctures of his life. In the first part, which he started writing in 1771, Franklin gives details of his lineage and his humble beginnings. The second is during his French sojourn, the third follows his return to the US and the fourth abruptly ends with his death in 1790. Only the first part was published in 1791 and it took close to 100 years for all four parts to be published in a single English edition.
Through the book, readers get a close look at Franklin’s inherent goodness, desire to do good for America, and all his actions that conformed with his beliefs. Franklin writes about his inventions and discoveries as well as insights into his philosophy and life in 18th century America.
Dubbed the “Queen of Crime”, Christie wrote her autobiography in secret. Despite being one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century, not many knew of her private life. Published in 1977, a year after her death, the book offers a look into her life from her childhood in the 19th century to the expeditions she went on with her second husband Max Mallowan. She also writes about her troubled first marriage and experiences as a writer but doesn’t go into details of her renowned books. Christie concluded her autobiography in 1965 and therefore her achievements after that year do not find mention.
Lee grew up in North Korea but decided to flee the totalitarian country in the 1990s following a famine. At great personal risk, she managed to escape alone. It was only years later that she was able to reunite with her family but only after she took on a daring rescue that brought her back to North Korea. The best-selling book is a thrilling true account of the life of the people in North Korea, the dangers defectors and their families face, and the struggles of the defectors as illegal aliens in foreign lands following their escape.
Keller’s autobiography was published in 1903 and was a major success. In it, she covers the timeframe from her birth to the age of 21, and her relationship with her governess and teacher Anne Sullivan who helped her become one of the most inspiring icons of the 20th century. Keller beautifully reveals how she overcame her blindness and deafness with Sullivan’s help. The letters exchanged between Sullivan and Keller are also included in the book, parts of which were later adapted for film and Broadway.
Named after one of his most famous songs, the renowned rock star decided to write his autobiography following the experiences he encountered performing at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2009.
In his book, released in 2016, Springsteen writes about his childhood years growing up a Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey. How Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show inspired him to take up music and every detail about his musical career after that has been honestly chronicled by Springsteen in this critically-acclaimed written documentary of his life.
One of the greatest male tennis players of all time, Andre Agassi kept the world on his racquet with both his on-court charisma and off-court controversies. The former world number one’s autobiography is interesting in a way that he expresses some not-so-favourable views for some of his opponents, his troubled relationship with ex-wife Brooke Shields, and his hatred for tennis. He also reveals the pressure that was placed on him by his demanding father in his childhood, the personal struggles he faced throughout his professional career and his positive transformation with help of his wife and tennis legend Steffi Graff.
When the book was released in 2009, it generated controversy because Agassi confessed in it to have taken crystal meth in 1997 and lying to the ATP after failing a drug test. Russian tennis player Marat Safin demanded that Agassi return his titles but the American told Sydney Morning Herald that he never took the drug in tournaments.
The critically-acclaimed autobiography was ranked number one on New York Times Best Seller list in 2009.
The three-volume autobiography is the longest you will read of anyone documenting their life. The first volume was published in 2010, on the 100th anniversary of his death. Twain didn’t write the entire book himself; he dictated most of what the volume contains to stenographer Josephine Hobby and author Albert Bigelow Paine.
The biography doesn’t follow a linear path as Twain dictated his ruminations as they served his mind. Thus, the three volumes will give the readers a feeling as if Twain is speaking to them. The legendary American author talks about things concerning his life to his thoughts on the events happening at the time. This was the last of his works and Twain left instructions that the collection of some 2,000 pages, that made up the autobiography, not be published till 100 years after his death.
The three volumes, all of which were published by 2015, instantly earned critical acclaim post their release.