Memoirs That Will Last | Collection Development

Which of these statements is true? 1. Memoirs are popular. 2. New memoirs are popular. I suspect the latter. As I weeded my library’s biography section last summer, I found many memoirs and other autobiographical writings in nearly pristine condition; most of them had not been borrowed since the year of their publication. Sadly, I also found highly regarded memoirs that had not moved in years. These books had been selected initially to meet current demand, and some had, like the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, performed beyond expectations, but our readers had lost interest in or awareness of all of them. For a small library needing room for new, in-demand memoirs, it was time to part with the old.

Because there is never any shortage of memoirs being published, finding new titles to buy is no problem. The librarian’s challenge is staying within budget and selecting titles that will please the local reading public. While reading reviews, consider a memoirist’s personal fame and cultural importance. Was the author witness to great events or friend to famous people? Has she already written successfully? Do reviewers praise the storytelling? Is the publisher committing to a large print run, author tour, publicity? What is the track record of similar memoirs in your collection? A New York Times best seller by yet another New York Yankee may be of little interest in Spokane.

When readers are constantly urged in print and online to read new books, aiming to buy memoirs that will last seems almost foolish. Yet we do. As librarians, we want to spend our dollars well by buying books for the present and the future. Predicting which memoirs will last, however, is like predicting which rookies will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Librarians must look for memoirs with five basic tools: a strong central character, a great story, an appealing setting, great writing, and a compelling mood. Having all five tools, however, is not a guarantee to everlasting fame. To continue to find new readers, memoirs must be on best books lists, discussed by book groups, made into movies, and/or studied in schools. Who can know which of the memoirs that we buy this year will earn this attention?

The choice is yours

Selecting memoirs is like selecting fiction, which has similar appeal factors. (Novels written in first person are essentially fictional memoirs.) Memoirs have the added quality of being true—or somewhat true. While almost any memoir will have changed a few names to protect privacy, or re­sequenced events to make a story line clearer, we have recently witnessed numerous scandals involving memoirs featuring characters who never existed and events that never occurred. Confessing authors often claim their stories are still fundamentally true despite not being factual. That readers must now question the veracity of memoirs may actually add to their appeal. Despite the furor, the demand for memoirs is still very strong. Of course, there are many worthy memoirs to keep in your collections to offer to readers. Two great guides to the genre are Rosalind Reisner’s Read On…Life Stories: Reading Lists for Every Taste and Maureen O’Connor’s Life Stories: A Guide to Reading Interests in Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Diaries.

Which memoirs will you still have in your library collections in ten or 20 years? Which books will still interest our readers? Will we weed digital collections as we do physical collections? In any case, I believe we will still want the books on this list, all of which belong in a core collection.


Douglass, Frederick. Douglass: Autobiographies; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Library of America, dist. by Penguin. 1994. 1100p. ISBN 9780940450790. $40; pap. ISBN 9780872865273. $12.95.
When this slave narrative was first published in 1845, it was bound with two testimonials from white abolitionists attesting that Douglass truly wrote the text himself. Despite his command as a public speaker, critics doubted a slave could write so eloquently. Still powerful reading.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later Writings; The Autobiography.Library of America, dist. by Penguin. 2005. 816p. ISBN 9781883011536. $30; pap. ISBN 9781598530957. $7.95.
Benjamin Franklin set the tone for more than a century of positive-thinking American literature with this inspiring 1791 account of his education and early career as a printer, inventor, and diplomat.

Grant, Ulysses S. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters; Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. Library of America, dist. by Penguin. 1990. 1199p. ISBN 9780940450585. $35; pap. ISBN 9780760749906. $14.95.
Grant was old and in debt when he finally agreed to write a memoir of his military career. Because of his prominence in both the War with Mexico and the Civil War, Grant’s recollections of a generation of military leaders and the battles they fought were eagerly sought by readers. His clear, unadorned 1885 writing still reads well in the 21st century.

Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. Norton. 2003. 352p. ISBN 9780393057447. $21.95; pap. ISBN 9780451531568. $4.95.
Helen Keller was 19 months old when disease left her deaf and blind. That she could relearn to communicate and later write a vividly visual account of her education was the ultimate overcoming-adversity story, featuring many great people of her age, e.g., Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain. This inspiring book has never been out of print. (LJ 3/1/03)

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings; Life on the Mississippi. Library of America, dist. by Penguin.1982. 1126p. ISBN 9780940450073. $35; pap. ISBN 9780451531209. $4.95.
With his series of humorous memoirs, Twain made himself one of the most beloved characters of American literature. In Life on the Mississippi (1883), he combined an entertaining coming-of-age story with a late homecoming journal. Together they revealed great changes within the author and in our country’s heartland. Twain led the way for memoirists who disregard facts for the sake of story.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy. HarperCollins. 2008. 419p. ISBN 9780061443084. pap. $17.99.
Son of a tenant farmer and school teacher, the award-winning novelist was always hungry as a boy. Whether at home, in an orphanage, or in the care of an aunt or grandmother, he begged or stole food without remorse. His 1945 Dickens-like story of abandonment, child labor, and self-education is a classic of survival in the Jim Crow South.


Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random. 2009. 289p.ISBN 9780812980028. pap. $17.
Abandoned by her parents, Angelou and her brother, Bailey, spent their early years in the care of a strong grandmother in Stamps, AR, where they first experienced racial discrimination. At age eight, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and lost her willingness to speak to anyone other than her trusted brother. With strong language and sexual content, this remarkably frank memoir is a frequent target of booking-banning proponents. (SLJ 11/03)

Carter, Forrest. The Education of Little Tree. Univ. of New Mexico. 2001. 216p.ISBN 9780826328090. pap. $16.95.
Proclaimed the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year in 1991, this sweet account of a boy being raised by Cherokee grandparents was exposed as false later that year. The author’s real name was Asa Earl Carter; he had no Native American ancestors, and many of the cultural references were inaccurate. Though most libraries have moved the book to fiction, it is still popular with readers seeking inspirational titles. (LJ11/15/76)

Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. Houghton Harcourt. 2003. 236p.ISBN 9780060569662. pap. $14.99.
The late poet was a preteen when surgeons removed a Ewing’s sarcoma from her jaw, leaving her face disfigured. Passing through stages of disbelief, fantasy, anger, and depression, she suffered 30 surgeries before accepting that she would never be seen as normal by others. Her memoir questions how society’s demand for physical beauty harms young women. (LJ 7/94)

Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Rocket Boys: A Memoir. Delacorte. 1998. 384p.ISBN 9780385333207. $26; pap.ISBN 9780385333214. $16.
Few boys escaped the coal mining towns of West Virginia of the 1950s without football scholarships, but Hickam and his friends sought a way. Inspired by the space race, they built and launched a series of rockets, dreaming they would earn scholarships to study to be aerospace engineers. Winning community support was easier than getting a father’s approval. Hickam re-creates an exciting time in American history in this first of three memoirs. (LJ 11/1/98)

Karr, Mary. The Liar’s Club: A Memoir. Penguin. 2005. 352p. ISBN 9780143035749. pap. $16.
Karr inherited her storytelling flair from her father and her love of literature from her mother—both unreliable, demon-filled people who failed to protect their daughters from their own neglect and dangers in their communities. This account of two insanely unstable years of childhood is the first of three acclaimed Karr memoirs. (LJ 6/1/95)

McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. S. & S. 1996. 364p. ISBN 9780684874357. $26; pap. ISBN 9780684842677.$16.
Retuning to Ireland after years in Depression-era New York was a big mistake for McCourt’s already desperate family. They found only worse tragedy and poverty in the dirty streets of Limerick. With surprising affection, the author tells a lively story about his mother’s struggle to feed her family and his own quest to return to America. (LJ 8/96)

Malcolm X. & Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Random. 1992. 527p. ISBN 9780345376718. pap. $16.
While critics still debate the role Alex Haley played in the writing of this 1965 book, its importance is irrefutable. With Haley’s assistance, Malcolm X described a world of broken promises, injustice, and hatred from which he wanted his race to escape. Many social reformers and militants have been inspired by this dramatic story. (LJ 6/15/90)

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Morrow. 1974. 412p. ISBN 9780688002305.$26.99; pap. ISBN 9780061673733. $16.99.
Having a difficult-to-impress 11-year-old boy as a traveling companion might hamper any man’s ability to see goodness, but it was because of his son’s deteriorating mental health that Pirsig urgently needed to repair and maintain his own outlook. Their motorcycle ride from Minnesota to California, with talkative companions, was a deeply personal philosophical journey. (SLJ 10/74)


Albright, Madeleine with Bill Woodward. Madam Secretary. Miramax. 2003. 576p. ISBN 9780786868438. $27.95; pap. ISBN 9781401359621. $14.95.
Born in Czechoslavakia between the world wars and a mother of three, Albright was an unlikely candidate to become the first woman to be Secretary of State when she entered government service at age 39. Her memoir is both a look at her remarkable life and an account of the turbulent time between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks. (LJ 3/15/76)

Bailey, Elisabeth Tova. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Algonquin. 2010. 208p. ISBN 9781565126060. $18.95.
Imagine quiet broken by a snail eating. With autoimmune dysautonomia and chronic fatigue syndrome resulting from mitochondrial disease, Bailey has involuntarily spent over 20 years coping with restricted movement. This intimate account of her snail-like life challenges readers to seek calm in their own lives. (LJ8/10)

Bryson, Bill. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir. Broadway. 2006. 288p. ISBN 9780767919364. $25; pap. ISBN 9780767919371. $15.99.
This author of numerous travel adventures has always been a funny guy. Growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s, he was the quintessential mischievous boy enjoying the freedom of middle-class life in a time many readers would gladly revisit. (LJ 7/07)

Burroughs, Augusten. Running with Scissors: A Memoir. St. Martin’s. 2002. 288p. ISBN 9780312283704. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9780312422271. $14.
What sane mother would help her son fake a suicide to get out of school? Burroughs’s mother did and then placed him in the home of an unscrupulous psychiatrist and his unruly family. This irreverently funny memoir survived a lawsuit claiming slander to become a popular book club selection. Some readers may find language and sexual accounts offensive. (LJ 6/1/02)

Child, Julia with Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. Knopf. 2006. 336p. ISBN 9781400043460. $27.95; pap. ISBN 9780307277695. $16.
Who knew that the jolly chef from public television had fought so hard to be admitted to cooking school while in post–World War II France? Concerns about cooking temperatures and writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking competed with worries about her husband’s position in a diplomat corps obsessed with exposing secret communists. Child’s lively memoir is a delightful American abroad story. (LJ 9/1/06)

Deford, Frank. Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter. Atlantic Monthly. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9780802120151. $25.
In the past 50 years, sports have become big business, and athletes have become celebrities. Sportswriter Deford witnessed and contributed to the movement with his reporting for Sports Illustrated, in books, and on television and radio. His entertaining memoir is a testament of the times.

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Knopf. 2005. 227p. ISBN 9781400043149. $25.95; pap. ISBN 9781400078431. $14.95.
“You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends,” Didion repeats in her hypnotic memoir about her life before and after the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne. In recounting her mourning with its mixture of loving reflections and painful second-guessing, she finds the words that eluded her for a year. An important addition to the literature of grief. (LJ 9/1/05)

Dubus, Andre, III. Townie: A Memoir. Norton. 2011. 400p. ISBN 9780393064667. $25.95; pap. ISBN 9780393340679. $15.95.
After his parents’ divorce, Dubus and his siblings were left with his cash-strapped mother in a hard-knocks neighborhood surrounded by drugs and violence. On Sundays, they visited their negligent father at his comfortable college campus. Dubus eloquently recounts years of explosive anger and the healing power of writing.

Ebert, Roger. Life Itself: A Memoir. Grand Central. 2011. 448p. ISBN 9780446584975. $27.99.
The thyroid cancer that left Ebert unable to speak increased his need to write. His wide-ranging memoir joyfully reveals his Midwestern childhood, exciting college years, entry into journalism, and encounters with cinema’s most famous. Readers may wish their lives had been so full. (LJ 2/1/12)

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia.Penguin Group (USA). 2006. 352p. ISBN 9780670034710. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9780143118428. $16.
While a few reviewers dismissed Gilbert’s book as self-indulgent and dull, many were entertained by the humor and irreverence of her account of a year seeking solace for lost love by living in three vastly different countries. Having become both a movie and a manifesto for empowered women, it should remain in print for many years. (LJ 1/06)

Moore, Wes. The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. Spiegel & Grau. 2010. 256p. ISBN 9780385528191. $25; pap. ISBN 9780385528207. $15.
Two men named Wes Moore grew up in Baltimore, both black and poor; one became a Rhodes scholar, while the other went to prison. The scholar interviewed the criminal seeking to discover the deciding factors in their lives. Tailor-made for book groups. (LJ 4/15/10)

Smith, Patti. Just Kids. Ecco: HarperCollins. 2010. 304p. ISBN 9780066211312. $27; pap. ISBN 9780060936228. $16.
When Smith arrived in New York in 1966 without prospects or possessions, she slept in a park until she met Robert ­Mapplethorpe. After a series of cheap apartments, they moved into the Hotel Chelsea where lived now-famous artists, writers, and rock musicians. While some readers may be offended by language and sexual descriptions, Smith’s memoir of her years with Mapplethorpe is a tender testament to love. (LJ11/1/11)

Swofford, Anthony. Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles. Scribner. 2003. 272p. ISBN 9780743235358. $24; pap. ISBN 9780743287210. $15.
Most readers already know that war is hell. Former marine sniper Swofford found that the descent from decency to vulgar brutality began long before he reached the battlefield. Using cinematic flashbacks and flash-forwards, he tells of extraordinary violence and its damage to his soul. An important addition to the literature of war. (LJ 1/03)


Memoirs have inspired many great films. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta von Trapp (1949) moved Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to compose their 1959 Broadway musical The Sound of Music, which became a movie in 1965. Less clear is the use of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) and Revolt in the Desert (1927) by T.E. Lawrence. Stories were drawn from both in the making of David Lean’s classicLawrence of Arabia. An unpublished memoir by British speech therapist Lionel Logue (1880–1953) was vital to the writing of the screenplay for the Academy Award–winning film The King’s Speech (2010). In the case of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, the release of the movie Hotel Rwanda (2004) preceded the publication of the memoir An Ordinary Man (2006).

Despite the general disregard for historical facts shown by filmmakers, the stories from some memoirs survive as relatively faithful adaptations. The following films should continue to interest viewers for years.

Catch Me if You Can. color. 141 min. Steven SpielbergDreamWorks, 2002.DVD UPC 667068998221. $9.98; Blu-ray UPC 097361474342. $22.99.
Caught in 1969, serial impostor Frank Abagnale confessed to a series of crimes that had led FBI agents on a five-year chase. Steven Spielberg directed a comic adaptation of Abagnale’s entertaining memoir (2000).

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. color. 112 min. Julian SchnabelTouchstone Pictures, dist. by Walt Disney Studios, 2008. DVD ISBN 9780788884573. $6.99; Blu-ray UPC 9780788884573. $36.98.
A stroke in 1995 paralyzed Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby at age 43. The memoir (1997) that he dictated to a speech therapist by blinking his left eye inspired this spellbinding French film, praised for its accurate depiction of locked-in syndrome.

My Left Foot. color. 103 min. Jim SheridanMiramax, dist. by Lionsgate, 1989; 2011. DVD UPC 031398137795. $14.98.
Born with cerebral palsy, Irish playwright Christy Brown was considered an idiot until he learned to write with his left foot. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award in the highly acclaimed adaptation of Brown’s memoir (1954).

Papillon. color. 150 min. Franklin J. SchaffnerWarner Home Video, 1973; 2005. DVD ISBN 9781419809507. $5.97; Blu-ray ISBN 9780780671270. $34.99.
Until just before his death, convicted felon Henri Charriere maintained that the events of his memoir (1969) about escaping from Devil’s Island were all true.

The Pianist. color. 150 min. Roman PolanskiFocus Features, 2002; 2006. DVD ISBN 9781417020058. $14.98.
First published in Polish, Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir (1946) recounts the composer’s harrowing experiences in the Jewish ghetto of Nazi-occupied Warsaw during World War II. Adrien Brody won the Academy Award for Best Actor in this stunning adaptation by director Polanski.

The Untouchables. color. 119 min. Brian de Palma, Paramount, 1987; 2006. DVD UPC 097360504248. $12.98; Blu-ray UPC 097361247342. $22.99.
G-man Eliot Ness’s best-selling memoir (1957) about assembling and deploying an incorruptible team of FBI agents to fight Chicago mobsters of the 1920s and 1930s spawned this motion picture and two tele­vision series.

SELF-eLearn More
SELF-e is an innovative collaboration between Library Journal and BiblioBoard® that enables authors and libraries to work together and expose notable self-published ebooks to voracious readers looking to discover something new. Finally, a simple and effective way to catalog and provide access to ebooks by local authors and build a community around indie writing!


  1. Alasdair says:

    Not a bad list, but awfully American-centric, until you got to the films section. Do you not believe that any great memoirs have been written by non-Americans? Shouldn’t readers be encouraged to gain some understanding of the wider world?

    • Rick Roche says:

      I agree. I focused on American memoirs because of the limit of space I was given. There was a statement about the focus in the article, but it was edited out. I’d be willing to do another international article.

  2. Marcia says:

    Where’s the glass castle by Jeanette Walls???!!!