Biographies bring their subjects to life. A well-written biography isn’t just a list of events that happened to someone. Rather, it tells a story in a way similar to a novel — in a narrative. That narrative is what differs biographies from the rest of nonfiction.
Autobiographies are life stories that provide an insight into the authors’ views, the events that shaped them as people, and the methods they used to overcome any obstacles that came their way.
To compile a list of 20 of the most popular autobiographies, 24/7 Tempo combined the lists of autobiographies from Ranker, Wikipedia, Good Reads, and Book Authority to form a universe of nearly 900 autobiographies and ranked them based on Wikipedia page views between March 29, 2019, and March 29, 2021.
Many of the autobiographies on this list have been turned into movies — from comedies to dramas and war movies. Sometimes, however, added drama was occasionally necessary to make the stories fit in cinematic standards. Film studios frequently turn to true life stories for movie inspiration. These are the best movies based on true events.
To compile a list of 20 of the most popular autobiographies, 24/7 Tempo combined lists of autobiographies from Ranker, Wikipedia, Good Reads, and Book Authority to form a universe of nearly 900 autobiographies. We then ranked the books based on the highest total of Wikipedia page views between March 29, 2019, and March 29, 2021. Biographies written about a person by another author — for example, “Steve Jobs” written by Walter Isaacson” — were excluded.
20. Running with Scissors
> Author: Augusten Burroughs
> Year published: 2002
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 106,437
“Running with Scissors” recounts the unorthodox childhood of author Augusten Burroughs. Burroughs is sent by his unbalanced poet mother to live with her psychiatrist, referred to as “Dr. Finch,” and the many other unusual people already in the home. There, a 12-year-old Burroughs has a childhood with no rules or restraints, marked by drug use and inappropriate sexual relationships between some of the many other characters who live in the house.
Several of the people Burroughs describes in “Running with Scissors” sued him, claiming the book contains “bizarre, imagined scenarios and exaggerated descriptions” of life in the house as well as enough detail that they could be identified.
19. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
> Author: Loung Ung
> Year published: 2000
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 115,477
Loung Ung’s harrowing memoir “First They Killed My Father” recounts the horrors of the Cambodian genocide under the reign of dictator Pol Pot beginning in 1975. Ung was the child of a government official and was forced to flee when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed her city, forcing her family to flee. She eventually was forced to train as a child soldier after being separated from her family.
Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Times that the book was written “straightforwardly, vividly, and without any strenuous effort to explicate their importance, allowing the stories themselves to create their own impact.”
18. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
> Author: Ishmael Beah
> Year published: 2007
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 124,146
Ishmael Beah recounts his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone in his autobiography “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” Beah was displaced by war at age 12, forced to wander the countryside before being taken in by the army and made to be a soldier at age 13. Then, he spent years being plied with drugs and killing with astonishing regularity. He was eventually rescued by UNICEF workers, rehabilitated, and made his way to the U.S. where he earned his college degree and shared his story.
Goodreads describes the book as a “rare and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty.”
17. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother
> Author: James McBride
> Year published: 1995
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 124,367
In his book “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” author James McBride recounts his experience of growing up with a Black minister father, 11 siblings, and a light-skinned mother who would not discuss her racial identity. Throughout the book, he tells her story, retracing her steps through a difficult and chaotic childhood, and relaying her message that education and perseverance are the keys to life.
Throughout the book, McBride touches on his own experiences with race, drugs, violence, poverty, and self-actualization. Publisher’s Weekly called the book a “moving and unforgettable memoir.”
16. The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom
> Author: Corrie Ten Boom
> Year published: 1971
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 139,927
“The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom” recounts the life of a Dutch woman who was the nation’s first licensed watchmaker, before the Nazi invasion of Holland in 1940. Corrie Ten Boom and her family would go on to help lead the Dutch Underground, an organization that hid Jewish people from the Nazis, in hundreds of safehouses across the country.
The title of the book refers to the secret room behind a false wall in ten Boom’s home where she would hide those facing Nazi persecution. The book, released in 1971, became a best-seller and was even made into a movie in 1975.
15. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
> Author: Benjamin Franklin
> Year published: 1791
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 141,957
As the title suggests, “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” recounts the life of one of America’s most famous founding fathers. The four-part memoir, recounting the major portions of Franklin’s life, is one of the most famous and influential autobiographies in English language history.
Franklin’s autobiography has been described as “probably the first ever self-help book,” as it gives readers advice on how to live virtuously. It has also been praised by Loyal Books as an inspiring portrait of a man “who attains learning and honest employment by dint of sheer hard work can even today be said to represent the American Dream.”
14. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
> Author: Jean-Dominique Bauby
> Year published: 1997
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 163,279
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” tells the remarkable true story of French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. After suffering a stroke, Bauby is afflicted with locked-in syndrome — he is fully conscious, but only able to move his left eyelid. Though the book offers a glimpse into Bauby’s incredible struggles, it also offers hope and strength considering that he had to dictate the entire story one letter at a time.
Goodreads describes the book as a “harrowing look inside the cruel prison of locked-in syndrome, but it is also a triumph of the human spirit.” The book became a movie by the same name in 2007, which was nominated for four Academy Awards.
12. Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog
> Author: John Grogan
> Year published: 2005
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 173,968
In “Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog,” John Grogan tells the story of his family’s 13 years spent with Marley, their yellow Labrador Retriever. The dog proved impossible to train, but sweet and supportive throughout the ups and downs of Grogan’s life with his wife and children.
The autobiography was adapted into a blockbuster film, starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, that grossed over $250 million worldwide.
11. The Story of My Life
> Author: Helen Keller
> Year published: 1903
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 193,997
In “The Story of My Life,” Helen Keller tells the story of her early life and struggles from the time she lost her sight, hearing, and ability to speak after coming down with scarlet fever as a 19-month-old baby. Keller recounts how, with the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she went from being isolated and depressed to achieving her dreams, including eventually learning to speak.
According to Mark Twain, “Helen Keller is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.”
10. Autobiography of a Yogi
> Author: Paramahansa Yogananda
> Year published: 1955
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 273,427
“Autobiography of a Yogi” is an autobiography by Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian monk, yogi, and guru. More than 70 years after it was published, the book is still considered a modern spiritual classic.
The book takes the reader on Yogananda’s journey from his childhood in India to his search for a spiritual guru, training under a revered yoga master, and to his life in the U.S.
9. Long Walk to Freedom
> Author: Nelson Mandela
> Year published: 1994
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 287,886
“Long Walk to Freedom” is the autobiography of former South African President Nelson Mandela and the head of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. The autobiography covers everything from Mandela’s early childhood to spending 27 years in prison.
According to a review by the African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the book is “emotive, compelling and uplifting” and “a story of hardship, resilience and ulti- mate triumph, told with the clarity and eloquence of a born leader.”
8. Born a Crime
> Author: Trevor Noah
> Year published: 2016
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 329,360
“Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” is an autobiographical comedy book written by comedian and current host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, Trevor Noah. The autobiography is a coming of age story about a boy whose existence was illegal. His mother was black and his father was white, and under apartheied laws, marriage — and any kind of romantic relationships — between white people and people of color were illegal.
“By turns alarming, sad and funny, his book provides a harrowing look, through the prism of Mr. Noah’s family, at life in South Africa under apartheid and the country’s lurching entry into a postapartheid era in the 1990s,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in a a review in The New York Times.
7. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
> Author: Marjane Satrapi
> Year published: 2000
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 360,948
“Persepolis” is a graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi, descended from a previous line of Iranian royalty. Satrapi writes about her childhood years, from 6 to 14, in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. “Persepolis” in the title is a reference to the ancient capital of the Persian Empire.
An editorial review in The New York Times Book Review describes the book as “delectable … Dances with drama and insouciant wit.”
6. The Story of My Experiments with Truth
> Author: Mahatma Gandhi
> Year published: 1927
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 503,974
“The Story of My Experiments with Truth” is the autobiography of Mohandas K. Gandhi. In the book, Gandhi documents his life from early childhood through to 1921, in the process recounting the story of how he developed the concept of active nonviolent resistance, which played a major role in India’s fight/struggle for independence from British colonization in 1947.
Gandhi’s autobiography has been described as “probably the most important book ever published in India” by Ramachandra Guha, author of “Gandhi Before India.”
> Author: Tara Westover
> Year published: 2018
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 649,879
“Educated” is about Tara Westover’s isolated upbringing in a Mormom family and the change she undergoes through education. Westover eventually got a doctorate from Cambridge University and had a fellowship at Harvard University. Throughout the book, Westover, who was kept out of school, emphasizes the importance of education in changing a person’s life.
When the book was published in 2018, it was named one of the best books of the year by several publications, including The Washington Post, Time, Bloomberg, The Economist, and The Guardian.
> Author: Henry David Thoreau
> Year published: 1854
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 766,454
Moving into a cabin by a lake, immersing yourself in nature, and distancing yourself from social life sounds like a life change people in the 21st century may make. But Henry David Thoreau, a naturalist and a philosopher, did it in the 19th century, writing a book about his experiences, praising self-sufficiency and living a simple life.
First published in 1854, “Walden” is still considered an inspiration and a guide for people who try to find solutions to critical environmental challenges.
3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
> Author: Maya Angelou
> Year published: 1969
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 807,242
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is the first of six autobiographies written by Maya Angelou. The book is about Angelou’s coming of age in a small Southern town where she and her brother were sent to by their mother. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is also about how strength of character can help a child overcome prejudice.
“Miss Angelou’s book is more than a tour de force of language or the story of childhood suffering: it quietly and gracefully portrays and pays tribute to the courage, dignity and endurance of the small, rural Southern black community in which she spent most of her early years in the 1930s,” said Robert A. Gross in Newsweek’s original review of the book.
2. Man’s Search for Meaning
> Author: Viktor Frankl
> Year published: 1946
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 886,944
“Man’s Search for Meaning” is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist, describing his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, including at Auschwitz, during World War II and also the lessons he learned from his struggles.
Decades after the book’s publication, “Man’s Search for Meaning” is viewed as a memoir, a self-help book, and a psychology manual simultaneously. Its English language editions alone have sold more than 3 million copies, according to the Harvard Book Store.
1. The Diary of a Young Girl
> Author: Anne Frank
> Year published: 1947
> Wikipedia pageviews, Mar 29, 2019 – Mar 29, 2021: 1,132,501
“The Diary of a Young Girl” is a journal by Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager who chronicled her family’s life in hiding between 1942 and 1944 during the Nazis occupation of the Netherlands. Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp a year later.
First published in 1947, the book has been read by millions of people and has been described as “the single most compelling personal account of the Holocaust, by The New York Times Book Review. It adds that the book “remains astonishing and excruciating.”
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