20 Best Autobiographies of All Time
Broaden your horizons with the help of these outstanding autobiographies.
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A first-person look at a different point of view
Before diving into our list of best autobiographies, let’s take a moment to get our autobiography definition sorted. When it comes to biography vs. autobiography, the distinction is easy: Biographies are written by an author other than the subject, and autobiographies are written by the subject themselves. The difference between a memoir and an autobiography can be a little trickier. A general guideline is that an autobiography is the story of a life, while a memoir is a story from a life. In other words, a memoir focuses on a distinct period of time or theme, while an autobiography runs through a person’s life, and is usually told chronologically. Even an autobiography can’t encompass a whole life though, as the author is still living it. Sometimes a series of memoirs is later compiled and categorized as an autobiography. Other times there are books that straddle both genres.
Since we also have a roundup of memoirs everyone should read, for this list we tried to focus only on autobiographies, leaving out books that are labeled “a memoir” on the cover. Wanting to include some of the best books of all time, we looked not only to contemporary bestsellers, but also to autobiographies that were groundbreaking, books that have stood the test of time, and books that have lessons relevant for today’s readers. Like the best biographies, autobiographies enlighten readers through the story of a person’s life. Get ready to learn about some extraordinary people, and while you’re at it, check out our best nonfiction books and best books by Black authors.
1. The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou by Maya Angelou (2004)
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most acclaimed and recommended memoirs and one of the best books for women. It focuses on the author’s childhood and became the first of seven books chronicling the author’s remarkable life and insight. Together, they form a complete autobiography, and six of them are included in this bestselling collection. Through the gorgeous and distinct voice that Angelou is known for, readers can learn about her life through the beginning of her writing career in the books Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, and A Song Flung Up to Heaven.
2. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin (1909)
Written by Franklin between 1771 to 1790 and published in the early 1900s, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin details the Founding Father‘s early life and unique adulthood. One of the book’s most notable sections describes Franklin’s attempts to achieve “moral perfection” through the achievement of 13 virtues, including temperance, silence, and order. Although the book was written more than 200 years ago, Franklin’s suggestions for bettering one’s life remain as current and essential to humankind as ever.
3. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)
This historic work of nonfiction is widely considered to be one of the best autobiographies ever written. It’s a vivid retelling of Douglass’ childhood and the torturous abuse he suffered at the hands of numerous slave-owners, as well as his harrowing escape to freedom, after which he became a respected orator and prominent abolitionist. As we grapple with the legacy of slavery in America, reading Douglass’ firsthand experience is a painful and necessary step toward understanding the harm of the past and how it has shaped the present. As you shop for autobiographies, consider purchasing from one of these Black-owned bookstores.
4. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)
This autobiography, one of the most famous books about the Holocaust, takes the form of a collection of writings from the diary Anne Frank kept for the two years she was in hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In daily writings, Frank shares intimate details about her family, crushes on boys, her religion, and the heartbreaking effects of the war. In light of her tragic death in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 15, what makes this book so remarkable is how Anne was able to remain hopeful about the goodness of humanity, despite the suffering her family endured. Almost not published, The Diary of a Young Girl is now a must-read for students and adults alike.
5. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1994)
In 1962, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela was arrested for conspiring to incite a strike and overthrow the government and was sentenced to life in prison. He would serve 28 years. Following his release in 1990, he ascended to become the country’s first Black president, in the first presidency secured by democratic election. This autobiography recounts Mandela’s remarkable life, from his childhood growing up in Mvezo, South Africa, to his formal education and training as a lawyer. It also chronicles his time in prison and his unprecedented ascension to the presidency, further cementing Mandela’s place as one of the most notable leaders of our time.
6. Living for Change: An Autobiography by Grace Lee Boggs (1998)
We listed the dual biography of Grace Lee Boggs and her husband James Boggs on our best biographies list, but even if you’ve read that account, the story of her life in her own words still makes for a fascinating and enlightening read. Her life spanned 100 years and many pivotal social movements. In this expansive autobiography, Boggs details her evolution as an intellectual and an activist, working with other leaders like Malcolm X and C. L. R. James, as well as her husband.
7. Autobiography of an Androgyne by Earl Lind (1918)
Written in 1918 for a clinical audience, this is not your typical autobiography but is all the more important for its rarity. In clear prose, Lind both shares his life story and advocates for recognition of and respect for those who don’t fit society’s binary identities. Regarded as a groundbreaking book for queer and transgender literature, Autobiography of an Androgyne stands as a reminder that there have been nonbinary, trans, and queer people for far longer than some are willing to recognize, and part of creating a more just society is increasing representation of literature from this diverse community.
8. Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)
Some people call the huge bestselling hit Becoming a memoir, but the way it spans First Lady Michelle Obama’s life easily makes it one of the best autobiographies of all time. Divided into three parts (Becoming Me, Becoming Us, Becoming More), the book takes us through her childhood in Chicago, the early days of her relationship with Barack, and their time in the White House. Readers see like never before the amount of turmoil and stress that accompanied this heavy responsibility, and how it could only be handled with such grace by a woman as strong and full of good humor as Michelle Obama. The audio version is narrated by Obama herself, and is on our list of best audiobooks.
9. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai (2013)
Malala is one of those rare figures in society recognized immediately by first name. She has become a symbol of strength, courage, equity in education, and the promise of her young generation. Her activism began with writing, so it is fitting that her story continues with this autobiography, telling her story up until 2013. There will surely be more autobiographies to come from this amazing young woman who has already put her life on the line, championing girls. You can also see Malala on our list of inspiring women.
10. Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda (1946)
This truly remarkable book has been in continuous print since it first published in 1946, and is estimated to have printed over 4 million copies now. Born in 1893, Paramahansa Yogananda is widely credited with popularizing yoga in the United States. His autobiography is both the story of his life, and a guide for readers on how to cultivate their inner lives. This book is so beloved, Steve Jobs arranged for it to be handed out to every guest at his memorial service. Both its legacy and Yogananda’s legacy are still going strong.
11. An Autobiography by Agatha Christie (1997)
If you’re a fan of mysteries, you’ve likely read a book by Dame Agatha Christie—it’s possible you’ve even read a few dozen books by the prolific detective novelist. But even if you’ve never cracked open one of her novels or short story collections, you’ll still enjoy this autobiography, published posthumously. Christie’s voice is clever and witty as ever in this detailed account of her life through age 75. Due to its length (over 500 pages), this isn’t a book you’re likely to finish in one sitting. Each time you read it though, you’ll feel like you had a conversation with the author, and learned how she thought of life and writing.
12. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (1965)
“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against.” This powerful quote comes from a letter Malcolm writes from Mecca, and is part of his must-read autobiography. The book was put together by author Alex Haley, a longtime Reader’s Digest contributor, taken from interviews with Malcolm X, and excerpts of his writing. Haley also provides an epilogue, after Malcolm X was tragically assassinated in 1965. One of the most important activists and thinkers in the racial justice movement, Malcolm X’s life will not be forgotten, and his autobiography is worth many reads.
13. Chronicles Volume 1 by Bob Dylan (2004)
Not only has Bob Dylan won multiple Grammy awards for his contributions to music, but he also won a Quill Award for for this autobiography, as well as a Nobel Prize in Literature. In his songs, Dylan is a gifted storyteller, and that gift doesn’t fade in the way he tells the story of his life. From Greenwich Village in 1961 to the recording studio in 1989, we see the people and places that infuse themselves into his work. This book is not without controversy though. Over the years, some phrases were discovered to be the words of other artists including Ernest Hemingway, Mezz Mezzrow, and Marcel Proust. This intertextuality was not properly attributed, leading to complaints of plagiarism.
14. Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. by Luis J. Rodríguez (1993)
This award-winning book is considered a classic in the autobiography/memoir category. It was also one of the most frequently banned books in the 1990s. Former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Javier Rodríguez has written 16 books and won all manner of accolades, but there was a time in his life when this was inconceivable. Always Running is an unsparing look at the L.A. gang life that Rodríguez was immersed in growing up. His hard-won battle out is a gripping and important story, written as a way to save his own son from gang life, and read and needed by many.
15. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 by Mark Twain (2010)
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was a master of the written word. Of course, Twain was known for great American novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His autobiography was his last work but wasn’t published until 2010—100 years after his death, as he directed. It instantly became a bestseller. Unlike conventional autobiographies, the story of Twain’s life doesn’t follow a chronological, predictable order; rather, it serves as a collection of ruminations about his exceptional experiences, based on 5,000 pages of memoirs he left in the care of the University of California at Berkeley before his death.
16. Becoming A Visible Man by Jamison Green (2004)
Jamison Green is an author, educator, and transgender rights activist. His autobiographical account of his trans experience has served as a reflection for many in the female to male (FTM) community, and as a resource for allies of the trans community who want to better understand some of the challenges of this journey. Informative and even academic at times, Green blends theory, personal stories, and a history of activism. Though some progress has been made since this book first came out, representation of trans masculine people is still sorely lacking. Some terminology in this book is a bit dated, but if you want some historical context for the fight for trans rights, this autobiography is a good place to start.
17. Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash (1997)
Johnny Cash is often seen as troubled, haunted by a certain darkness, always dressed in black. There is more to him than that, though. In this autobiography, he brings to life pivotal moments in his famous musical career, revisits never before written memories, discusses his spirituality, and muses on the state of music and culture. If you enjoyed the 2005 film Walk the Line about the life of Johnny Cash, this book will give you even more insight into the mind of the man who gave us songs such as “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
18. Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty by Janet Mock (2014, 2017)
New York Times bestseller and winner of multiple awards, Janet Mock’s debut book is a coming-of-age story that you don’t want to miss. In 2011, she told her story for the first time in a Marie Claire profile, coming out as transgender and proud, with nothing more to hide. She followed up the success of her first empowering book with Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me. Any young person struggling to find their path will be inspired by how Mock became the powerhouse she is today. She is an Emmy-nominated writer, director, and executive producer of shows such as Pose and Hollywood, and a fierce advocate for trans rights.
19. Flying Free: My Victory over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the US Aerobatic Team by Cecilia Aragon (2020)
A remarkable and uplifting story of how a shy, bullied girl followed her interests and harnessed her abilities to literally soar above us all. Cecilia Aragon felt excluded and fearful during childhood, but had a special strength in math. When a coworker introduces her to flying as an adult, something clicks into place and she can’t get enough, first learning the basics and then venturing into aerobatics. She uses math to overcome any fears, calculating each tricky maneuver ahead of time. In these pages, she takes us on great loops through the air, and a journey where it feels like not even the sky is the limit. This is an especially great read for girls who love math, LatinX authors, or anyone looking to overcome fears.
20. Courage to Soar: a Body in Motion, a Life in Balance by Simone Biles (2016)
Reading this book is like sitting and listening to the greatest of all time, Simone Biles, tell you about her life lessons. And who wouldn’t want to do that? In a friendly, generous, and empowering voice, Biles shares stories of her obstacles and how she works to overcome them. She has made it through foster care, doubt, and the most rigorous training to grow beyond even what this book holds. It’s a perfect read for young girls, athletes, or anyone wanting a little encouragement and inspiration.