Night and 10 Other Must-Read Memoirs

On July 2, 2017, we will commemorate the one-year passing of novelist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize Elie Wiesel. While Wiesel penned several autobiographies and works of fiction, his best-known work is Nighta memoir based on his experiences as a prisoner in WWII concentration camps, specifically Auschwitz and Buchenwald. A harrowing read offering a firsthand account of one of our world’s most tragic time periods, Night helped shine a light on the Holocaust and to this day is regarded as one of the world’s most important works of literature.

A fact that is not as widely known as the work itself is that Night is part one of a trilogy: NightDawn, and Day. Each book focuses on specific parts of Wiesel’s transformative renaissance—darkness to light, horror to healing. With Night, we know of Wiesel’s intent:

“I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end—man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.”

For the trilogy’s subsequent works, Wiesel took a different approach, saying, “In Night it is the ‘I’ who speaks. In the other two, it is the ‘I’ who listens and questions.” The final book, Day (not a memoir but a work of fiction), completes the transformation arc: an injured man reflects on his relationships and experiences during WWII and comes to grips with his survival and the deaths of loved ones.

Memoirs, like Night, offer a clear window into the thoughts and experiences of others, especially those who write them. They are also a subgenre of autobiography—though the exact categorizations of “memoir” and “autobiography” are a bit fuzzy and at times almost entirely overlapping. Essentially, a memoir is autobiographical, while not all autobiographies meet the criteria for a memoir. Loosely, autobiographies will encompass the subject’s entire lifespan, whereas memoirs—depending on the work—tend to be more flexible and focused on a specific point in time or subject matter, like WWII. Though there has been some debate over the years about Night‘s designation as a memoir, most publishers agree that the story speaks to Wiesel’s personal experiences—something we can all learn from.

Night will surely live on as part of the historical canon and as a must-read memoir for generations to come. Keep reading for ten more memorable, must-read memoirs handpicked by our staff. Some are new, some are old, and many you may not have heard of just yet (but should definitely check out now!).

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1. When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi’s poignant memoir When Breath Becomes Air recounts his fight against Stage IV lung cancer. A brilliant medical student, Kalanithi had a bright future in neurosurgery ahead of him when he received his diagnosis. His New York Times op-ed “How Long Have I Got Left?” led him to write this memoir. Continue reading When Breath Becomes Air summary… →

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2. The Lost Boy

The Lost Boy is the sequel to Dave Pelzer’s bestselling memoir A Child Called “It.” The story opens in Daly City, California in 1973, when David’s teachers call the police to report their suspicions of child abuse. Continue reading The Lost Boy summary… →

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3. Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me is a book-length letter from author Ta-Nehisi Coates to his fifteen-year-old son, Samori. It was written shortly after his son learned that Michael Brown’s killers would go free—the same year that Tamir Rice and Eric Garner were killed by police officers. Coates wanted to explain to his son what it means to be a black man in America. Continue reading Between the World and Me summary… →

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4. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy is J. D. Vance’s illuminating memoir of life in Appalachia, a region of the Eastern United States stretching from Alabama in the South to New York in the North. Appalachia used to be an industrial haven, home to the coal and steel industries, but the decline in manufacturing has resulted in widespread economic hardship. Continue reading Hillbilly Elegy summary… →

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5. Man’s Search for Meaning

In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist Victor Frankl draws on his experiences in Auschwitz to develop his method of logotherapy. In the concentration camp, he discovered that the desire to find meaning is essential to the human experience. He uses this knowledge in his psychoanalytic practice. Continue reading Man’s Search for Meaning summary… →

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6. The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, according to writer William Styron, is “one of the great documents of the twentieth century.” It articulates the anger, frustration, and hope felt by African Americans during the 1960s. The two essays composing this work were published in 1963, selling more than one million copies, making Baldwin—according to The New York Times—the widest read African American writer of his time. Continue reading The Fire Next Time summary… →

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7. The Story of My Life

In The Story of My Life, author and activist Helen Keller recounts her early education with Anne Sullivan from the Perkins Institute for the Blind. An illness left Keller deaf and blind at eighteen months, and she’s unable to communicate until Sullivan teaches her the manual alphabet. Continue reading The Story of My Life summary… →

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8. The Last Lecture

In The Last Lecture, professor Randy Pausch expands on a speech that he delivered at Carnegie Mellon University in September 2007. Pausch, who had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, addressed his book primarily to young adults and children hoping to fulfill their dreams. Continue reading The Last Lecture summary… →

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9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou recounts the story of her life up to the birth of her child. Though she faces many hardships in her life, including being raped and living in a junkyard, she’s able to find love and happiness as a mother. Continue reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings summary… →

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10. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

In his introduction to the English translation of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Jan Kott writes of Tadeusz Borowski’s decision to render his Auschwitz stories in the first person: “The identification of the author with the narrator was the moral decision of a prisoner who had lived through Auschwitz—an acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation, and mutual guilt for the concentration camp.” Continue reading This Way for the Gas summary… →