I remember back in high school, my English teacher had a cheesy saying, “We read books because we can never know enough people.” It’s one of those pithy truths that you don’t start to appreciate until you’ve gotten much older.
We tend to self-select the people in our lives. What I mean by that is that we tend to become friends with people who share our own interests, our own views, and our own experiences. We tend to seek out experiences that confirm our prior experiences and our previously-held beliefs.
We’re bad at diversity. It’s not something that comes naturally to us.
Reading is one way in which we can counteract this tendency. Memoirs, in particular, are a great tool for expanding the scope of our experiences. You can sit down with a memoir and live someone else’s life—see what they’ve seen, feel what they’ve felt—in as little as a day.
Here are six memoirs that will make you think differently about the world.
Washington: A Life
Chernow is one of the most acclaimed living biographers and this 928-page behemoth of a publication (with tiny font, no less) is currently considered the definitive book on George Washington’s life.
I forgot where I came across this book, but something funny struck me when I saw it—I realized that despite all of my history classes and knowledge about the constitution and US government, I couldn’t actually tell you a single thing about Washington’s life. I mean, like everybody, I heard he was a badass. I also heard that he was widely revered in his time and has come to be seen as one of the most ethical figures in human history. But again, I didn’t actually know anything about him as a person.
Well, the details are in, and Washington’s badassery has been understated. There were countless nights where I was reading this before bed where I would simply guffaw and turn to my wife and say, “Okay, you’re not going to believe this one…”
However incredible you think Washington was, he was even more incredible. And not just for his accomplishments or humility (he was given the opportunity to become the monarch of the US and repeatedly turned it down), but also his humanity. Chernow covers, in depth, his insecurities about money and his poor farm boy background, his inner turmoil about slavery and his struggle to free his slaves, his sensitivity to insults from political opponents, his prodigious physical talents, and his flirtations with women. He was a fascinating man through and through and undoubtedly one of the most important and influential humans to ever walk this earth.
3 Ideas That Might Change Your Life
This is the type of book I would never normally read, but I forced myself to. Hunger is a memoir by a morbidly obese feminist activist (“morbidly obese” is the medical term, not my own personal indictment).
Gay weighs over 500 pounds, and by her account, is addicted to food. This is a memoir about that relationship with food, with her body, and her life. It’s extremely powerful in its bluntness and vulnerability. She has suffered a lot in her life. And she doesn’t shy away from any of that suffering.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that Gay is aware of all of the dominos that have kicked over to lead her into her situation—severe sexual trauma as a young girl led to her “hiding herself” by being fat, which led to her food addictions, which led to a lifetime of strange and messed up relationships. She owns all of it. States it plainly. And is honest about her ability/inability to cope with it at times. Some days are better than others. Some years are better than others.
All in all, it was eye-opening and I’m glad I read it. I’ve definitely gotten a number of angry emails over the years for making fat jokes on this site. A while back, I went through the archive and removed the ones I could find. This book has only made me more sensitive to that kind of stuff going forward.
Born a Crime
One of the most fun and shocking memoirs I’ve ever read. Trevor Noah is a world-famous comedian who grew up in poverty in apartheid South Africa. A mixed race child, his existence was literally illegal at the time. Hence: born a crime. The intensity of Noah’s childhood, married with his inimitable sense of humor, makes this a page turner, a tear jerker, a belly laugh—pretty much every other cliché you can think of. An incredibly fun read.
A must-read for anyone who wants to start a business, has started a business, wishes they started a business, or has ever thought about starting a business. Shoe Dog is about the founding and first seven years of one of the world’s largest and most successful companies. It is also a catalog of failures, mistakes, almost misses, and moments of great fortune. It’s the best book I’ve ever come across at showing that great success isn’t so much pre-meditated and executed, as it is stumbling along until you find something that works and then run with it.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Yet another incredible memoir. In the mid-90s, Bauby suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. During the coma, he became conscious and suffered “locked-in syndrome” which is when someone “wakes up” in their coma and is conscious, but is unable to move. Eventually, family members figured out that he was conscious, and with the help of his daughter, he devised a lettering system to communicate by moving his left eyelid. This entire book was written through a slow, painstaking process of a completely paralyzed man moving his left eyelid in various sequences. And somehow, the prose manages to be beautiful. Another fascinating read into one man’s unimaginable pain.
I was impressed with the depth and insight in this memoir. I hate to say it, but you rarely expect much from celebrity books. This one delivered though. McConaughey is quirky and thoughtful as ever. He comes from a crazy family in a small Texas town and unlike many actors who spend their lives dreaming of stardom, he kinda stumbled his way into it. An interesting and unconventional look at the traditional Hollywood career. Candid and thoughtful throughout. Recommended.