We humans

Gift guide: Biographies and memoirs

Nov 20, 2019

A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia by Sandra Allen
In college, Allen’s uncle sent her his autobiography in the mail — the story of a man suffering from schizophrenia. The autobiography was written in all capital letters on a typewriter, and Allen’s vicarious memoir, which places her uncle’s story in context, is written in two fonts. This book beautifully recounts the life of a beautiful and troubled man, and it’s a one-of-a-kind must-read on mental illness.
— Drew Philp (TED Talk: My $500 house in Detroit and the neighbors who helped me rebuilt it)

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong (TED talk: Let’s revive the Golden Rule)
This memoir is about Armstrong’s journey to find God after she joins a convent at 17 and the unexpected path that she finds herself on. I found this book an inspiring and intriguing look at one woman’s path, the human condition and spirituality.
— Lucy Marcil (TED talk: Why doctors are offering free tax prep in their waiting rooms)

Trashed by Derf Backderf
I spotted this graphic novel on a shelf at my favorite indie bookstore, and it blew me away. A fascinating and gritty autobiographical account of working on a sanitation truck in a small town, it overflows with great characters and moments (including a few memorable ones involving maggot-infested trash cans).
— Dave Isay (TED Talk: Everyone around you has a story the world needs to hear)

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell
Bell is a self-described sociopolitical comedian. In a series of essays that are part memoir and part sharp and humorous take on the world, he tackles everything from race relations to comedians and superheroes. I found myself both snorting with laughter and reflecting soberly on the challenges of our time. I dare say both are essential for processing the complicated and sometimes absurd events of now.
— Liz Ogbu (TED Talk: What if gentrification was about healing communities instead of replacing them?)

Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism by Mario Biagioli
The way we learn about scientific practitioners and progress often depicts them as pure epistemological actors, moving the boundaries of human understanding forward independent of political and sociological forces and concerns. This is not — and has never been — the way that science actually happens. Galileo explores this complexity in the context of the scientist’s life and work, putting the production of scientific knowledge of the past and the present in a new, more nuanced light.
— Dustin Schroeder (TED Talk: How we look kilometers below the Antarctic ice sheet)

Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History by Larry Brilliant 
This is the fascinating personal story about Brilliant (TED Talk: My wish — help me stop pandemics), who went from being a hippie and spiritual seeker to doctor, and his remarkable account of playing a key role in the eradication of smallpox worldwide. As a polio survivor who advocates for the end to that disease, I am inspired by Brilliant’s contribution to that monumental achievement. Some of the lessons learned in his effort to end smallpox can and have been applied to the global push to stop polio.
— Minda Dentler (TED Talk: What I learned when I conquered the world’s toughest triathlon)

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Brown tells her story of growing up as an African American in white middle America. This is a story about white middle-class Christianity and its power to perpetuate privilege and racial hostility.
— Jonathan Williams (TED Talk with Paula Stone Williams: The story of a parent’s transition and a son’s redemption)

The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson
This short, beautiful memoir by the famous author of Silent Spring (the groundbreaking warning about the costs of chemical pollution) came out half a century ago. It chronicles Carson’s beach walks with her nephew and her unfolding understanding of the power of a child’s wonder and surprise at nature. An inspiring read for those who would like to share nature’s pleasures with a child — and rediscover their own sense of wonder.
— Emma Marris (TED Talk: Nature is everywhere — we just need to learn to see it)

How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays by Mandy Len Catron 
This beautiful, engaging memoir convinced me that the stories we hear (and tell ourselves) about love can constrain our experiences and expectations in ways that we often overlook. In one of my favorite essays, the author describes her boyfriend Kevin (“one of those mercurial people whose attention feels like sunlight, something you don’t know you’ve been deprived of until it shines on you”) and concludes, “Maybe I accepted less than what I wanted — from Kevin and from love — because he offered enough to tell a good story.” In doing so, Catron (TED Talk: A better way to talk about love) puts into words some of my own vague, free-floating feelings about my past relationships in a way that has given me a new lens for understanding them.
— Elizabeth Dunn (TED Talk: Helping others makes us happier — but it matters how we do it)

Grant by Ron Chernow
Chernow — who also gave us the famed biography of Alexander Hamilton — was the featured speaker at the White House Correspondents Dinner in April 2019, in a break from the tradition of having a comedian. But after reading Grant, I can understand why. This biography tells us how an alcoholic, gullible sad-sack became one of the the most famous soldiers in US history as well as the civil-rights championing 18th President — it has all the elements of the next great Lin-Manuel Miranda musical.
— Prosanta Chakrabarty (TED Talk: Four billion years of evolution in six minutes)

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
A first-person account of life on board a marine merchant sailing ship en route from Boston to San Diego through Cape Horn two centuries ago. It’s a fascinating adventure, an important historical piece of social commentary, and a vivid time capsule from early California in the 1830s — when Monterey was the largest city on the coast with … 100 houses. Worth re-discovering.
— Romain Lacombe (TED Talk: A personal air-quality tracker that lets you know what you’re breathing)

Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee
This memoir is an intimate and funny unpacking of a brown woman’s experience of life in modern-day South Africa. Everything from sneakers to sexuality is covered in the most hilarious, heartwarming, thought-provoking and sometimes heartbreaking way. It’s bound to make people uncomfortable in all the best ways.
— Tiffany Mugo (TED Talk with Siphumeze Khundayi: How to have a healthier, positive relationship to sex)

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean
This book is an eclectic collection of biographies of some of my favorite writers, held together by the common set of challenges that they faced as women.
— Daniel Susskind (TED Talk: 3 myths about the future of work and why they’re not true)

My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass
“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” To me, this quote from Douglass perfectly illustrates the effect that slavery had on those who were raised to uphold its tenets. That a system can be a detriment even to those that may benefit from it I find incredibly poignant even in today’s society. It’s so important that we recognize the implications of our beliefs both in how they affect ourselves as well as others. My Bondage and My Freedom not only taught me about the cruel reality of slavery but also showed that in the most depraved systems humanity will seek to reach its potential no matter what obstacles are placed in its path.
— Zak Ebrahim (TED Talk: I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace)

A Mind Unraveled: A Memoir by Kurt Eichenwald
The opposite of its negative title, this book might better be called Unshaken. It’s a gripping, eye-opening, true story — about the author’s struggle with epilepsy — that I couldn’t put down and which left me feeling inspired and in awe. It could easily become a great movie. I think people who read it may become better members of our society, freeing their many neighbors who live in fear.
— Rosalind Picard (TED Talk: An AI smartwatch that detects seizures)

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Sometimes I just want to read a book that makes me want to quit my job and travel the world to look for adventures. This is that kind of book. Framed in his lifelong addiction to surfing, Finnegan writes raw and beautifully about growing up as a haole in Hawaii, coming of age and exploring the world in search of waves and purpose, and later the complex question of balancing family, work and hours spent doing what you love the most. He is also one of the very few writers around who is able to explain the often absurd dedication and driving addiction surfers have for breaking waves, without getting tangled up in clichés and at the same time making it understandable for a wider audience.
— Anders Fjellberg (TED Talk: Two nameless bodies washed up on the beach. Here are their stories)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
This book is serious and comedic all at once. I love reading it. I appreciate Fuller’s passion and love for Africa, despite some of the drama she had to endure in her family and as a poor. white African. It is a well-written genuine account of a time and places in Africa that are not often discussed.
— Juliet Brophy (TED Talk: How a new species of ancestors is changing our theory of human evolution)

Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi
Whose autobiography begins with the sex life of one’s parents? Gandhi’s prose is so simple and so direct that it hasn’t dated, and his voice is so bare and radical that it will enthrall, surprise and shock you. The story he tells — of a young boy growing up in a town in the western state of Gujarat in India in the late 19th century, his struggles with sexuality, and his extraordinary political awakening in race-riven South Africa — is the stuff of legends. If you want to remind yourself of the true nature of politics and how a great political leader is formed, this is the book to read.
— Chiki Sarkar (TED Talk: How India’s smartphone revolution is needing to a new generation of writers)

Angels in the Sky: How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel by Robert Gandt
In 1948, Israel declared independence and five surrounding nations went to war. Learn how an international band of aviators scrounged airplanes and parts from all over the world to put together what became the Israeli Air Force. It’s written like a movie script with a hook at the end of each chapter. Then, read past the end to see what else these people did later in life.
— Jonathan Wilker (TED Talk: What sticky sea creatures can teach us about making glue)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Hunger is an utterly readable, intimate examination by Gay (TED Talk: Confessions of a bad feminist) about living as a fat black woman. It’s impossible to put down and impossible to read without being moved and vicariously enraged.
— Cathy O’Neil (TED Talk: The era of blind faith in big data must end)

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq by Sarah Glidden
This graphic novel gave me exactly what I needed: hope about the state and future of journalism. Glidden’s book subtly describes what it means to be a journalist as she tells the story of a trip she and her reporter friends took to Turkey, Syria and Iraq to research potential stories. As I watched the story unfold, I marveled at Sarah’s ability to synthesize a complex narrative with simple and elegant drawings.
— Safwat Saleem (TED Talk: Why I keep speaking up, even when people mock my accent)

Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger
This book is really stunning. Whether you like Gehry’s work or hate it, it is a fascinating deep dive into how someone becomes an international phenomenon and spawns a global re-evaluation of architecture (the Bilbao effect). Bonus is that it deals with some of my favorite issues: Jewish guilt, family dysfunction, self-deprecation and wearing head-to-toe black.
— Marc Kushner (TED Talk: Why the buildings of the future will be shaped by … you)

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
Wollstonecraft and Shelley are two of the most important women that most people have rarely thought about. They believed passionately (and at great cost) in the equality of women and the vital, distinctive contribution women should be able to make to human history. Their stories alone are remarkable, but Gordon’s idea to interweave the two biographies brilliantly explores the deep relationship between the mother and the daughter who never knew each other. In their search for a richer and more liberated way of life, the Romantics cherished Wollstonecraft’s writing and the daughter they hoped would embody the life of imaginative emancipation. What a legacy — but what an inspiration.
— Margaret Heffernan (TED Talk: The human skills we need in an unpredictable world)

Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace (with Dan Ozzi)
Grace’s story is filled with sincere self-reflection, and its touching, candid honesty is often unseen in the ego-hungry world of rock and roll. Tranny is not only a truly epic rock memoir chronicling her excesses but it also rips open her uncertainty and the bittersweet existence of a rock star. It’s an endearing and honest glance into the world of gender dysphoria, love, loss, success and failure — one that will kick you in the crotch and pull at your heart.
— Christian Picciolini (TED Talk: My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement — and how I got out)

Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner
It’s the remarkable and rarely told story of the people who created the internet. For all its ubiquity and importance in the modern world, we tend to forget that the internet was the result of imagination, hard work and remarkable feats of engineering from a relatively small group of brilliant people. One day the people behind the first networked computing in the late 1960s and early 1970s might be held in the same regard as Fleming, Faraday or Edison. Where Wizards Stay Up Late tells their story in meticulous (and occasionally quite funny — such as the very first word ever transmitted online, which was “lo” before the system crashed) detail. Anyone who is interested in where the internet came from and why it was designed like it was — which really should be all of us — must read this book.
— Jamie Bartlett (TED Talk:How the mysterious dark net is going mainstream)

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad by Lesley Hazelton
Often people from the “outside” see things differently and offer a fresh perspective. Hazelton, an agnostic Jew, writes about the prophet Muhammad from a nonjudgmental stance and with historic deep knowledge in a way that offers an inspiring perspective into its first prophet and the time when Islam was born. I could connect to the human being Muhammad, and for me, as a Muslim woman, this book made me reconnect with my own identity.
— Amel Karboul (TED Talk: The global learning crisis — and what to do about it)

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
I hesitated reading this nonfiction book after it was given to me by a friend, because it seemed like more of a feel-good story than what usually attracts me. Wow, was I mistaken! I found this book about the life of Louis Zamperini to be incredibly uplifting and almost impossible to put down. Hillenbrand does an elegant job of capturing details that make his story come alive without weighing down the amazing narrative of this real-life hero, who was an Olympic distance runner, an Air Force pilot in WWII, and a Japanese POW, among many other things. This beautifully told story of the life of Zamperini inspired me to be more than who I am.
— Ben Cort (TED Talk: What commercialization is doing to cannabis)

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender by Chrissie Hynde
I saw her play live in Austin, and I was totally in awe. I couldn’t stop staring at her — her demeanor, her contagious smile, how she moved on stage. I officially became a fangirl at that moment. I had heard about this book but I hadn’t felt the urge to pick it up until her performance. Then I wanted to know everything about her. One of my favorite lines in the book is at the beginning when she writes “I regret half of this story and the other half is the sound you heard” — it gave me goosebumps.
— Magda Sayeg (TED Talk: How yarn bombing grew into a worldwide movement)

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
Isaacson’s biography gives texture and humanity to the iconic scientist, publisher, diplomat and politician. It also reminds us that the key to Franklin’s success — relentlessly forming clubs and associations to find purpose in the company of others — is a method that is available to all of us today. If we want to revitalize a very sick American democracy, we should all begin with three words of advice: Be like Ben.
— Eric Liu (TED Talk: How to revive your belief in democracy)

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
If you want to learn about the history of the digital revolution, this book is for you. It takes readers on a tour through the stories of several innovators and creators of devices and developments that are very useful in our present-day lives. Traveling from the ideas of Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs, this book shows us how they took a step beyond conventional thinking with their revolutionary ideas.
— Lina Marieth Hoyos (TED-Ed Lesson: What is the coldest thing in the world?)

Living with a SEAL: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet by Jesse Itzler
This is the true story of Itzler, who decided to invite a Navy SEAL to live with him and his family for a month — and then tried to keep up with his physical regimen. This book teaches you that if you push hard enough, there is more to find within yourself.
— Mike Kinney (TED Talk: A pro wrestler’s guide to confidence)

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Scientists rarely write beautifully, but Dr. Jahren does exactly that in this memoir. She takes us through her childhood and reminds us how one can fall in love with science and nature and turn it into a successful and fulfilling career.
— Prosanta Chakrabarty (TED Talk: Clues to prehistoric times, found in blind cavefish)

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This memoir is one of the finest books I have read in recent memory. Physician Kalanithi — who died from cancer before he could complete this book — has written a deeply moving story that could be depressing, but in his hands, it’s both insightful and uplifting. The book illuminates the ecosystem of medical care for terminal illness and also provides touching insights into marriage, friendship and family.
— Sayu Bhojwani (TED Talk: Immigrant voices make democracy stronger)

Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger
This memoir of life before, during and after the Holocaust was written by a woman who went on to become a leading scholar of comparative literature. Kluger is a feisty feminist, unafraid to speak her mind, and full of piss and vinegar.
— Deborah Lipstadt (TED Talk: Behind the lies of Holocaust denial)

Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo 
Reading is a welcome departure from the usual savior narrative which so often permeates books about teachers working in underserved communities. Kuo (TED Talk: The healing power of reading) is brutally and refreshingly honest about herself in this memoir about her time teaching in Helena, Arkansas. Her relationship and her work with student Patrick Browning is at the center of the story, which weaves together Patrick’s story with historical, literary, economic and sociological perspectives — these keep it from being just a story about a dedicated teacher and inspiring student.
— Dolly Chugh (TED Talk: How to let go of being a “good” person and become a better person)

Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci by Mike Lankford
I found this exploration of da Vinci to be thought-provoking, especially compared to the thought-stifling entry on this same topic by Walter Isaacson, which has quite undeservedly received more press. Lankford presents a great many insights and delivers just the kind of biography I want to read: informed, colorful and very far from dry. With intense immediacy and grace, Becoming Leonardo starts on a high note and keeps getting better until the very end.
— Daniel Levitin (TED Talk: How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed)

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Laymon’s memoir hit home for me as he lives in Oxford, Mississippi, which is within 100 miles of my own creative work base. The author grapples with childhood traumas and coming-of-age revelations and emotions, all of which served to define the man he has become. This book, which is in the second person, is written as an engaging confession to his brilliantly damaged mother. It’s transformative, empowering and soulful.
— tobacco brown (TED Talk: What gardening taught me about life)

This book is so beautifully human and truthful and vulnerable and Black. It’s a perfect piece of writing — gut wrenching but necessary and also loving and bold in ways that we all need.
— Tarana Burke (TED Talk: Me Too is a movement, not a moment)

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld
I thought I was a Gandhi nerd, but I learned so much from this moving biography: how his steadiest profession was as a newspaperman, constantly working out ideas through public writing; how he was a relentless fundraiser, at times prying jewelry from the fingers of women supporters; and above all, how his “habit of fearlessness” inspired millions. These days, I find myself hungering for not just hope in general but for gritty insights into the persistence, imperfection, self-doubt and creativity that are part of forging a better world. Gandhi had it all, and no one tells the story like Lelyveld.
— Vivek Maru (TED Talk: How to put the power of law in people’s hands)

Lovesong: Becoming a Jew by Julius Lester
Lester so beautifully describes his experience growing up in a devout southern Christian family during the Civil Rights era before he decided to convert to Judaism. I instantly loved this book, and I was so inspired by the way he demystifies his conversion while honoring the complicated relationship among his racial, religious and cultural backgrounds as well as his journey into his chosen faith.
— Malika Whitley (TED Talk: How arts help homeless youth heal and build)

Survival in Auschwitz (If This Is A Man) by Primo Levi
This is an iconic memoir of a year in Auschwitz by an Italian Jew. Deeply psychological and insightful, it is a breathtaking analysis of what becomes of people forced into a setting that is designed to destroy one’s inner being and life.
— Deborah Lipstadt (TED Talk: Behind the lies of Holocaust denial)

Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings
We live in a time where there are a lot of (mis)conceptions about Islam, but no Muslim — Sunni or Shiite, Eastern or Western — will disagree that the life of the Prophet Muhammad embodies its essence. Lings, a scholar of Shakespeare and a student and close friend of C.S. Lewis, provides an intimate portrayal of the life and death of the Muhammad based on sources dating back to the 9th century.
— Muhammed Idris (TED Talk: What refugees need to start new lives)

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
I find women’s autobiographies to be quite empowering, especially when I’m feeling down or in doubt about my life. This memoir by a Kenyan environmental and political activist is a story of resilience and determination. Born in rural Kenya, Maathai ended up being the first woman from her country to receive a PhD and the first to head a university department. Through a foundation she established, she helped restore indigenous forests while also assisting rural women by paying them to plant trees in their villages. Without a doubt, her courageous story shows how we can make the best out of our circumstances, despite the challenges.
— Laura Boushnak (TED Talk: The deadly legacy of cluster bombs)

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
I really enjoyed this beautifully written memoir, a mixture of philosophy with the author coming to terms with the death of her father and her insightful story about training a pet goshawk. It’s a great holiday present for someone, particularly if they love birds of prey.
— Ian Firth (TED Talk: Bridges should be beautiful)

Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee
I’m a huge fan of this author’s, so honestly, I’d recommend anything he does (he also wrote for the Tales of the City series on Netflix). There are a lot of trans memoirs out there, and all are valid and powerful. What really draws me to Amateur is that it provides such a raw and honest look at one trans man’s exploration and understanding of masculinity. It goes to some very dark places, and I say good for that because it needs to. We need to look at the ways we impose violence on boys, how we insist that they embrace violence, and how we can move forward with a healthier version of masculinity.
— Samy Nour Younes (TED Talk: A short history of trans people’s long fight for equality)

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
McCullough’s genius is in the way he brings history to life. The extraordinary story of the Wright brothers, their life, work ethic, and relentless will to innovate makes this a powerful and inspiring read. It captures our world in a unique moment in history, where globally we’re more interested in innovation, not war.
— Stephen Wilkes (TED Talk: The passing of time, caught in a single photo)

Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara
This book is a nuanced and candid biography of a distinguished member of the Kennedy family. From her impassioned advocacy for the mentally disabled to her role in creating the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Eunice attests to the formidable spirit and altruistic personality of a remarkable woman.
— Zachary Wood (TED Talk: Why it’s worth listening to the people you disagree with)

For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind by Rosemary Mahoney
This author explores her deep fear of sightlessness by studying with and teaching the blind in Nepal and India. Her students tell her that, in fact, they wouldn’t want to be any other way. This book is an extraordinary account of how what scares us most may simply be another way of being in the world.
— Monica Byrne (TED Talk: A sci-fi vision of love from a 318-year-old hologram)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
I read this when I was in eighth grade, and it truly changed my outlook on the world. Malcolm’s transformation, religious journey, and views on identity and race made me who I am today. It’s beautifully written, engaging and dramatic. Each time I read this, I find some beautiful nugget about growing up and finding your purpose in life. I know there are some issues with the accuracy of the manuscript, and as a scholar that interests me greatly. However, as a reader, an American, and a black American, Malcolm X’s story of redemption, loneliness and salvation, reminds me of the highs and lows that I’ve felt many times when I was searching for answers, looking to people who were questioning society in the same way I was, and looking for my place in America.
— Reniqua Allen (TED Talk: The story we tell about millennials and who we leave out)

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela by Nelson Mandela
As someone who works in South Africa, I enjoy reading about the country’s history and its culture. Nelson Mandela was such an incredibly special and unique person. His hard work shaped so much of how South Africa morphed from apartheid to what it is today. He is an absolute inspiration.
— Juliet Brophy (TED Talk: How a new species of ancestors is changing our theory of human evolution)

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
This memoir dignifies controversial art in a way that makes me very hopeful, especially in these weird political times. Mann is unfairly gifted — not just as a photographer but as a memoirist of such poetry, fresh thinking and moral courage.
— Courtney Martin (TED Talk: The new American dream)

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World by Jacqueline Novogratz
Novogratz (TED Talk: Inspiring a life of immersion), founder of the nonprofit venture capital fund Acumen, donated a beloved blue sweater to Goodwill, only to see it again worn by a young boy she met in Rwanda years later. This story symbolizes how interconnected we’ve all become, a theme that the author explores in this deeply inspiring memoir, which traces her transition from NYC’s Wall Street to Kigali, Abidjan, New Delhi and beyond.
— Andrew Youn (TED Talk: 3 reasons why we can win the fight against poverty)

Becoming by Michelle Obama
This book tells the story that we oftentimes do not hear — we see successful people but never hear how they got there. This memoir explores Obama’s highs and the lows, allowing every human being to know that hard work and perseverance do pay off and that on the road to success one should always be evolving and becoming one’s authentic self through life lessons that build character.
— Olympia della Flora (TED Talk: Creative ways to get kids to thrive in school)

In this memoir, First Lady Michelle Obama is elegant and unapologetic about living your truth, being of great public service, dreaming big, and never giving up. She is eloquent, raw and real in describing her personal experiences and how she found her voice. Her account of public service — both in the White House and in her private life — is truly remarkable, and I’m excited to see this book encourage others to “become” the next, greater version of themselves.
— Darieth Chisholm (TED Talk: How revenge porn turns lives upside down)

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (TED Talk: The art of asking)
This book changed me. It made me think, sob and reevaluate how I interact with the people in my life. It is a unique blend of memoir, self-help, and cultural commentary. The central message of the book — that asking for help is not a burden, but a gift — is masterfully interwoven throughout Amanda’s story of her evolution as artist, wife and friend. I have never been so taken by a book.
— Emilie Wapnick (TED Talk: Why some of us don’t have one true calling)

An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer
This is a nonfiction memoir about one woman’s story of secretly connecting with her birth mother and maintaining a relationship with her. I found the author’s perspective easy to relate to, and the story made me think about the power of shame and the way one simple piece of information can change a life forever.
— Sarah Gray (TED Talk: How my son’s short life made a lasting difference)

Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America by Gregory Pardlo
Air Traffic was written by one of my mentors, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Pardlo. It helped me deal with the complicated range of emotions that I struggled with after I lost my father. This memoir is about a difficult relationship between a father and son, and it shows us love in a form that we rarely see displayed openly. It’s work to try to understand and accept a complex person while still seeing them in all their humanity — including their anguish and their ugliness.
— Michael Rain (TED Talk: What it’s like to be the child of immigrants)

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
Not really a memoir but more a collection of essays, this book made me laugh out loud on one page and then question some of my assumptions and beliefs on another. I particularly connected with it, because Rae is around my age and some of the coming-of-age stories that she tells revolve around the new technologies (AOL chat rooms!) that we were all exploring — resulting in both our edification and corruption — in the mid-to-late ‘90s.
— Elizabeth Cawein (TED Talk: How to build a thriving music scene in your city)

The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter by Shilpa Raj
This story traces the trajectory of a woman’s courage and dignity. Raj was born amidst poverty in rural Karnataka in southwest India, and in this poignant memoir, she narrates the appalling reality of female infanticide, the power of education, and familial differences. Told with intimacy and honesty, this book leaves an impact that is hard to put into words. Many days after putting it down, you’ll still be able to hear the footsteps of elephants, the songs of village children, and the sounds of Raj’s resilience in the face of challenges.
— Deepak Ramola (TED Talk: Everyone has a life lesson to share)

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
This is a story about the last year in the life of a 39-year-old mother of two young children. Despite that description, it’s a joyful book and at times really funny. It also enabled me to see my own life through clearer eyes.
— Karen Lloyd (TED Talk: This deep-sea mystery is changing our understanding of life)

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
In my work — I help people disengage from violence-based extremism — I see far too many instances of people from vulnerable communities who are preyed on by manipulative recruiters and propagandists. Trolling traditional “safe” zones, like online autism and depression forums, has become the norm as they target individuals who might be desperately looking for acceptance due to a history of bullying or marginalization. When I sounded the alarm on this disturbing practice, Robison and his colleagues answered the call and offered to work with me to understand the phenomenon and counter it. He and his memoir opened my eyes to an understanding of what so many people are dealing with on a daily basis and their wonderful identities that can and should be embraced — rather than stigmatized.
— Christian Picciolini (TED Talk: My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement — and how I got out)

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks 
Each book written by neurologist Sacks (TED Talk: What hallucination reveals about our minds) deserves to be on this list, and On the Move is his autobiography that was published shortly before his passing in 2015. While in the final stages of terminal cancer, Sacks wrote in a New York Times essay: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts”. This book offers this beautiful, scenic, almost surreal landscape of the interconnected existence of one of the most important minds of our times — the young lad with a passion for weightlifting and motorcycles and also the 75-year old man, lying in bed, keeping a notebook of all his feelings, devoted to “falling in love”. This book, like Sacks himself, is a lesson in compassion, curiosity, genius and humanity.
— Yana Buhrer Tavanier (TED Talk: How to recover from activism burnout)

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime
Meitner was the co-discoverer of nuclear fission but — surprise surprise — while co-discovers Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann received the Nobel Prize, she did not. But what is so gripping is the story of how a Jewish woman scientist working in Berlin until the late 1930s managed to contribute so much to our knowledge of how the world works. It’s another reminder of how much we lose, even today, because women in science too often still face an uphill struggle.
— David Brenner (TED Talk: A new weapon in the fight against superbugs)

Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Seims
A heartbreaking and humorous memoir of a still-detained inmate from Guantanamo Bay. Learning English from the guards and interrogators who kept him company, he began to put pen to paper about his experience in the controversial prison. The papers would consistently get confiscated. After seven years, his legal team was able to secure the release of 400+ pages that Slahi had written. The book was masterfully compiled and edited by Larry Seims. Never in my life have I read an account so alive, so full of compassion. This book is mandatory reading for all Americans.
— Bassam Tariq (TED Talk: The beauty and diversity of Muslim life)

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor
After a few pages, I knew this book was going to alter my perception on incarceration in America, as we need to hear first-hand stories straight from people who were systematically put there rather than through Hollywood movies or researchers or journalists. Throughout the whole book, I was like, “This is happening right in my backyard?” Shaka spent 19 years transferring from one prison to another and experiencing each one’s subculture and unwritten rules. His words are honest and very necessary, and I hope they will help humanize incarceration policies, or, even better, use education and mentorship to find a way to prevent young kids from being incarcerated.
— Christine Sun Kim (TED Talk: The enchanting music of sign language)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
An amazing and very accessible story about a woman with cancer, her family, and the cells from her cancer that have revolutionized aspects of biological research and our understanding of cancer. This story also raises important issues about the importance of informed consent, research ethics and the ‘business’ of clinical medicine and medical research. Beautifully written, and a story that continues to play out.
— Russ Altman (TED Talk: What really happens when you mix medications?)

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
This eloquent and lucidly written book is a favorite of mine. It illustrates how science can solve some of the most vexing problems of the time. In this particular case, it was how to know the precise longitude of where one might be anywhere on the face of the Earth. This knowledge was of vital importance to seafaring nations — it made the difference between finding safe harbor or being shipwrecked. This problem was so urgent and so impenetrable that in the 17th century, it spurred the British Parliament to pass the Longitude Act of 1714. It promised a prize of 20,000 pounds (or millions of dollars today) for a solution to this problem. This book is a gem and a joy to read.
— Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado (TED Talk: To solve old problems, study new species)

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayer
I loved this very candid and intimate story of the first Hispanic woman to reach the US Supreme Court.
— Halla Tómasdóttir (TED Talk: A feminine response to Iceland’s financial crash)

Walter Sickert: A Life by Matthew Sturgis
It is a magnificent biography of British painter Sickert (1860–1942), whose work followed the moment when modernism is born. He didn’t just live through the period; modernism lived through everything he does. He was like an early David Bowie, utterly committed to his art and offering us an alternate perspective on the world.
— Gus Casely-Hayford (TED Talk: The powerful stories that shaped Africa)

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls
The writing is so fluid, so effortlessly compelling. It’s the story of a girl with great determination, resilience and drive. I find it both beautiful and inspiring, both as a writer and as a human being.
— Daniel Levitin (TED Talk: How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed)

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
This is a deeply human story of our drive to explore, as told through the biography of polymath, naturalist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt. This nonfiction book inspired me to build a cyanometer to measure the blueness of the sky, to channel the courage that he used to climb unclimbable mountains, and to imagine how scientists and humanists can invent a better world.
— Linda Elkins-Tanton (TED-Ed Lesson: Why is NASA sending a spacecraft to a metal world?)

Go here to see the other book categories in the gift guide 

Do these recommendations look familiar? They’ve been curated from TED’s reading lists