Self-deprecation, awkward sexual awakenings, cringeworthy recollections and confessions: Memoir, for much of its modern history, was considered the black sheep of the literary family. In recent years, however, our increasing desire to peek through the keyhole has allowed the genre to flourish. From the tale of a woman crossing the desert with four camels and a dog to the personal story of a professor coming to terms with his blindness, these 9 books inspire us to reach our full potential, no matter the odds.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed


At 26 years old, struggling in the wake of her mother’s death four years prior, Cheryl Strayed begins a thousand-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Over three months, her solo expedition takes her through a continuous wilderness ranging from the Mojave Desert to the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest. With no experience, a size-too-small pair of boots and a backpack she calls Monster, Strayed’s journey is one of willpower and self-realization. Published 20 years on, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is now a best-selling memoir (and a movie starring Reese Witherspoon). Strayed’s retrospective, witty and humorous voice leads us along a beautiful, often treacherous trail. Beginning as nothing more than a line on a map, her journey ultimately becomes a life line, pulling her back to herself. 

 

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson


Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts has been lauded as a genre-bending memoir. Much more than a story of self-discovery, Nelson’s book spans motherhood, gender politics, queer theory, identity, politics of desire and feminism. At the center of The Argonauts is the love story between Nelson and gender fluid artist Harry Dodge. As Nelson experiences the transformations of pregnancy, Dodge undergoes a double mastectomy and is taking testosterone. The book reads like a collage of personal anecdotes, elucidating sophisticated theory and thought and glued together with compelling quotes and revealing, unabashed memories. Nelson offers a radical perspective on what it means to be a woman in contemporary society. With an open heart and zero self-righteousness, The Argonauts experiments with memoir to make way for exciting possibilities for the genre.

 

Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, by John M. Hull


Three years after being declared legally blind, John Hull began keeping a journal. These notes would later become the groundwork for Touching the Rock, his exploration into the "other world" of blindness. In this compelling memoir, Hull reveals a world in which every human experience, from eating to lovemaking, is profoundly transformed. Encountering odd sounds, distant echoes and people without faces, and discovering a peculiar new relationship to his dreams, Hull creates a poignant, methodical examination of his experience. “The incisiveness of Hull's observation, the beauty of his language, make this book poetry....” Oliver Sacks writes in the foreword of the book, which has recently been adapted for the screen.

 

Tracks, by Robyn Davidson


“I had made the choice instinctively, and only later had given it meaning,” writes Robyn Davidson in her 1980 memoir Tracks, recounting her solo trek across 1,700 miles of Australian Outback with four camels and her dog. Her epic journey, which she finished in 1977, was recently made into a film starring Mia Wasikowska. The movie illuminates the arid landscape in a powerful way, but it is in Davidson’s memoir that both her internal and external journeys are truly explored. Enduring desert heat, fending off poisonous snakes and lecherous men, menstruating with no clothes on, losing her wild camels and nursing their injuries, Davidson becomes a courageous heroine. Much more than a self-indulgent quest, Tracks is a celebration of Australia’s heritage and a candid account of indigenous culture. From Alice Springs to the ocean, Davidson reminds us that, against all physical odds, the human heart endures.

 

Just Kids, by Patti Smith


In Just Kids, poet and rock icon Patti Smith chronicles her life in New York City in the late 1960s and '70s. Escaping suburban New Jersey, Patti discovers a life of art, music and love. Orbiting around her newfound partner in crime, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids is as much a love song as it is a memoir. Inspired by poets before her  Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet and the Beats  Smith began to dedicate her life to writing, reading and art, eventually becoming the Renaissance woman of the punks. Just Kids is her account of New York's creative heyday, during which time she lived in the Chelsea Hotel, had a relationship with Mapplethorpe, and connected with stars like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Reflecting her passion for art and beauty, this work is much more than an autobiography: It is a lyrical contribution to literature, inspiring creatives to take risks and live deeply.

 

4 More Brilliant Memoirs for the Modern Reader


By Zara Miller

Zara is a freelance writer who loves travelling and all kinds of storytelling. Follow her on Twitter.