Personal stories are powerful. They open a door into someone else’s life and we get to peer in, to share in their experiences and find out what they’ve learnt. Sometimes the experiences are ones we could never dream of having ourselves – or would never want to – and so we live vicariously through another person’s life for 300 pages. Other times they are challenges we will face, told with a fresh perspective, full of lessons we can store away for some time in the future when we might need them. They help us understand ourselves and the people around us, inspire us to be braver and to ask for more from our own lives.
Educated by Tara Westover
Raised in a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho, Tara Westover wasn’t allowed to go to school. Instead she read the Bible, worked on her family’s scrapyard and prepared for the End of Days. That she then went on to study at Harvard and get a PhD from Cambridge is remarkable. The central question at the heart of this memoir is how she can be herself without alienating her family. It’s a unique and profound story about self-determination and the power of education.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I finished this book sobbing. I think that’s how most people finish it. At the age of 36, in the last year of his surgical residency, Paul Kalanithi found out he had terminal lung cancer. Here, he has written about the relationship between life and death as both a patient and a doctor. Atul Gawande said that, ‘the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life’ and this beautiful, devastating book is a reminder not to waste a second.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
When Patti Smith met Robert Mapplethorpe they were both young, poor and trying to be artists. She was sleeping on benches in Central Park, having moved to New York with no money, no friends and no job. They rented an apartment in Brooklyn, these two hungry 21-year-olds, and spent their evenings making collages and writing poetry. Just Kids is full of that poetry and full of love; it’s the story of a lifelong friendship in the pursuit of art.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
I read Amy Liptrot’s memoir on my way to Orkney, a remote archipelago off the north east of Scotland that I fell in love with. After spending her 20s in London, where her life slowly unravelled, she returned to the islands she grew up on to live on her own and track migrating birds. This book is partly about recovery from addiction but also about the healing quality of nature, the endorphin hit of swimming in the sea in winter, the joy of seeing the Northern Lights and the importance of re-connecting to the natural world.
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell has nearly died 17 times, from childhood encephalitis to almost drowning in India, some events were easily brushed off and others life changing. For a book about nearly dying, I Am, I Am, I Am is incredibly life affirming. I read it with a sense of dread, but at the heart of each story is the joy of being alive. Life is fragile, it can change in an instant, but we can’t let that stop us from experiencing everything it has to offer.
Tracks by Robyn Davidson
A few years ago I travelled across the Australian outback in a van. Even with the air conditioning on high and somebody else driving, the distance was staggering and the heat was unrelenting. In 1977, at the age of 26, Robyn Davidson trekked 1700 miles across this vast desert, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with four camels and a dog. Her journey is almost unbelievable, a true test of human resilience.
Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Reasons To Stay Alive is a raw and intensely personal account of the severe depression that left Matt Haig standing at the top of a cliff at the age of 24 ready to jump off. He takes us on the journey of re-building his life, the set backs, the panic attacks, as well as the humour (his list of ‘things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression’ includes eczema and working in media sales). For anyone who has suffered with mental health issues or knows someone who has, he brings understanding and, most importantly, hope.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
While Maggie Nelson was pregnant, her partner the artist Harry Dodge was transitioning. The Argonauts is her memoir about transformation. As she is about to become a mother, she explores the idea of motherhood, that no matter your childhood or your parents, ‘You, reader, are alive today, reading this, because someone once adequately policed your mouth-exploring’. It’s an incredibly moving and thought-provoking book about the stuff of life: love, gender, sexuality, identity, birth and death.
Help by Simon Amstell
Help is a coming-of-age story about a confusing childhood, an awkward adolescence and an epiphany in a Peruvian ayahuasca ceremony. Simon Amstell is fearless in exposing the reasons why he is the way he is. He’s also a comedian and so it’s incredibly funny. His stand-up routines are weaved into the book and his ability to find the humour in his darkest moments make it an uplifting reminder of the absurdity of life.
Do No Harm by Henry Marsh
Henry Marsh’s brutally honest account of his career as a neurosurgeon sees him grappling with life-and-death decisions, finding a way to live with the inevitable mistakes that come with difficult brain surgery and facing up to personal trauma behind the scenes. It’s as gripping as a thriller and he explores the highs and lows so thoughtfully and humanely. His dedication to saving lives is humbling.