Inspiring Autobiographies to Read in Difficult Times

The world is a chaotic place right now. In such uncertain times, I have increasingly found myself reading autobiographies. Reading about the struggles and achievements of inspirational people can be grounding, reassuring and inspiring all at once. 

Everyone faces setbacks in their life and reading about how other inspirational people have overcome their most difficult days sheds some light on the way in which we could all be coping with these unprecedented times. 

So, if you have to go into self-isolation or you simply want to mark out some self-care time, settle down and read a book that will stay with you for many months to come...  


1. Becoming, Michelle Obama 

Becoming is an easy read. Obama’s narrative is well-paced, starting with her childhood and upbringing as a young black girl in Chicago in the 1970s, moving through her years at Princeton then as a young professional lawyer before she met Barack Obama and eventually lived in the White House and served as First Lady of the United States. 

Obama's positivity and good sense of humour shine through the entirety of the book and her personal anecdotes are charming, from her first impression of Barack to her meeting the Queen. Her warm voice allows you to really feel like you get to understand Michelle’s personality. The other thing I loved about this book was that it really draws attention to the scope and the nuance of the role of First Lady - a job title that has definitely been historically under-recognised.

Obama won the 2020 Grammy award for Spoken Word for her magnificent narration of Becoming so if you have a subscription to Audible I highly recommend listening to her tell her own story!


2. Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela famously wrote (most of) Long Walk to Freedom on scraps of paper during his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island. This is a story that everyone should read – it is the story not just of a single man but of contemporary South Africa, and it propels the reader to consider the problematic histories of colonialism and globalisation throughout the twentieth century.

Mandela’s voice is thoughtful, at times nostalgic, and maintains more distance between the author and the reader than do more modern personal autobiographies. This is less an exploration of Mandela's personality than it is a history book, but it is unquestionably important. The story of Mandela’s life has shaped our modern world.

Nelson mandela Original image by Noa Blane Damelin

3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings pushed Angelou to fame when it was first published in 1969. This is a haunting, beautifully written, deeply emotional reflection on Angelou’s youth in a time of deep racism and discrimination in the American South.

Angelou’s writing style could not be more different to Mandela’s; Angelou’s writing is creative and artistic where Mandela's was informative and measured. At times Angelous blurs the line between autobiography and literature; metaphors (such as the eponymous ‘caged bird’) and literary devices abound. 

This is an autobiography to read if you want to admire the power of the written word, but also to grapple with truly difficult topics, from racism and black female identity in 1960s America to rape and trauma. This is a book that stays with you for months after reading.


4. Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton 

This last recommendation is not strictly a traditional autobiography, but it is a funny, relatable and poignant reflection on life as a twenty-something year old in London in the present day and age. 

In a fast-paced, highly engaging and vaguely chronological narrative, Alderton guides you through the ups and downs of modern dating, navigating friendships and getting started on your career. 

This is the kind of comforting book that you can read in one sitting on a rainy Sunday, and then re-read just a few months later. It is laugh-out-loud funny with the kind of humour that makes you want to share what you are reading with your friends – and perhaps that is part of the power of the book, as the main thing I took away from it was how important it is to celebrate and appreciate female friendships.


Everything I know about love book Original photo by Harriet Pinder