Biographies and autobiographies are some of the most life-changing books that exist. They allow us to learn more about individuals, both famous and relatively unknown.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Best Inspiring Biographies
- Most Inspiring Autobiographies
- Inspiring Autobiographies for Children and Young Adults
We may find we form a deep connection to a stranger when we read about them based on shared life experiences. Or we may just learn more about someone who has a totally different background. Most of all, we can find ourselves inspired by witnessing the way a person has lived their life.
Here, we’ll explore some of the best memoirs and biographies published in recent years that will make you see the world in a new light.
Best Inspiring Biographies
People often want to be moved by the world around them. We look to other people to inspire us so that we can learn and grow. The right sources of inspiration can help us believe in ourselves.
They can even transform the way we live our lives. These biographies are sure to inspire you and challenge you.
1. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder
Over the past several years, infectious diseases have dominated the national consciousness.
Global pandemics, the anti-vaccination movement, and preventative HIV medication are all part of this conversation. This biography focuses on the work of Dr. Paul Farmer. Farmer, a physician and anthropologist, fought tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru, and Russia. His story gives us hope that dedicated individuals are fighting to protect our health.
2. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
In 1936, distance runner Louis Zamperini competed in the Berlin Olympics as a teenager, an astonishing feat. But while that would be a notable enough accomplishment to warrant a biography, it’s only the beginning of his story.
In 1941 he was commissioned into the United States Air Force where he served as a bombardier. When he was just 26 years old, his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean on a search and rescue mission. Miraculously, he lived through the crash and went on to survive 47 days adrift at sea. Unfortunately, he was then captured in the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands. He was taken to a prison camp and tortured as a POW for two and a half years until the end of World War II.
Despite all of the ups and downs he encountered in his life, he discovered faith and the power of forgiveness. His story is proof that even after unimaginable hardship, the human spirit perseveres.
3. Young Mandela by David James Smith
Many people know the name and the legacy of Nelson Mandela. He was a political leader, activist, and philanthropist who spent 27 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. His crime? Fighting to dismantle the oppressive Soth African apartheid regime.
Upon his release, he became the first black president of South Africa and the first elected in a truly democratic election. Many people remember the benevolent, gray-haired Mandela from the latter part of his life.
This book focuses on his drive and leadership and his willingness to put himself on the line to invoke change. He is proof that one person can have enough of an impact to change the course of an entire nation.
4. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
Some people think celebrities and sports figures should keep their mouths shut about their personal beliefs and just do what they’re paid to do. One recent example of this is Colin Kaepernick. But sports figures have a lengthy history of fighting for their beliefs. Famed fighter Muhammad Ali was one of the earliest and most vocal.
Like Kaepernick, his morals cost him years of his career. When he refused to be drafted to the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, he was found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his titles. But he appealed his decision all the way up to the Supreme Court, proving he was a tireless fighter in more ways than one.
Most Inspiring Autobiographies
Biographies often focus on famous people, political figures, or other high-profile individuals. While celebrities also write memoirs, some of the most moving autobiographies come from people who are less well-known. Here are our picks for especially inspiring autobiographies.
5. Sully: Miracle on the Hudson by Chesley B. Sullenberger with Jeffrey Zaslow
On January 15, 2009, Americans were riveted by news reports of a near-tragedy. A US Airways flight was forced into making an emergency landing after both of its engines were taken out by a flock of Canada geese.
Miraculously, pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot were able to land the plane on the Hudson River without a single life lost. This story shows that on an average workday, a regular person can become a hero.
6. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird is ostensibly a guide to help aspiring writers hone their craft. But it is so much more than that.
Lamott meditates on her awkward childhood, her history of addiction, and her journey towards faith. She also delves into deeply painful topics like the death of her beloved father.
This book shows how you can mine all your life’s experiences in aid of helping you tell compelling stories. It also demonstrates that you can overcome an incredible array of challenges and become a teacher and leader.
7. Educated by Tara Westover
We trust our parents to prepare us for the world around us. Tara Westover’s parents raised her as a survivalist in the mountains of Idaho. She stewed herbs and canned fruits to sustain her family through the winter. What her parents didn’t do was allow her to seek an education or medical care.
At the age of 17, Westover stepped foot in a classroom for the first time in her life. She taught herself math and grammar and made it into college, and has traveled the world in pursuit of knowledge. Her story shows we can overcome the most hardscrabble and deprived upbringing.
8. When I Fell From the Sky by Juliane Koepcke
When she was just 17, Koepcke miraculously survived a plane crash. Lightning struck her plane midflight and tore it apart. She plummeted two miles to the earth, still strapped to her seat.
She was flung far enough away from the wreckage that she had to spend 11 days navigating her way through the wilderness, even with grievous wounds. This tale of perseverance is unparalleled.
Inspiring Autobiographies for Children and Young Adults
Kids and young people often gravitate towards fictional stories. But autobiographies can be a great way to get them more interested in nonfiction books.
All children need people to look up to. These autobiographies can inspire the next generation to follow their dreams.
9. I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
For a lot of kids, school is tedious and boring. For Malala Yousafzai, the chance to go to school was worth risking her life. Malala grew up in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, which was seized by the Taliban. This extremist group is opposed to girls receiving any form of education. Malala refused to be intimidated and continued seeking an education.
She nearly paid the ultimate price. When she was just fifteen years old, she was shot point-blank in the head on her bus ride home from school. Miraculously she survived and inspired the world with her courage and perseverance.
10. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The atrocities perpetrated against Jewish people during World War II can feel far-removed from modern times. This memoir brings the harsh reality of living in Nazi-occupied Holland to life.
Anne Frank and her family spent two years living in hiding in cramped quarters. But the war is really just the backdrop. This memoir provides a human face to the sweeping historical injustices of the 1940s. It’s impossible to read the inner thoughts of a thirteen-year-old girl and not feel personally connected to her struggles.
11. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson is a Newbery Honor award-winning author who is known for her poetic and evocative writing style. In her memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson talks about what it was like growing up as a young African-American girl in the 1960s.
In particular, she talks about the juxtaposition of living in New York vs. the segregated town of Greenville, South Carolina. This book will be especially inspiring for young African-American girls who don’t always get to see characters that look like them.
12. Firebird by Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland is a ballet dancer for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). The ABT is one of just a few leading classical ballet companies in the United States. In 2015, Copeland became the first African-American principal dancer in the company’s 75 years of existence.
This children’s book depicts a young ballerina who, much like Copeland herself, gets to dance the lead role in The Firebird. It’s a great inspiration for children to show that they can achieve their dreams through hard work and dedication.
Read These Inspirational Biographies for a Brand-New Perspective
There are so many books to read before you die. In truth, there’s no way to read all of the books you want to. But if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s nothing like a good memoir or biography to really move you.
Every one of us, young and old, can find something in someone else’s story to challenge us to become better. Someone’s life story told well can change your own life.
If you're looking for more recommendations, read our guides on the best inspiring fiction and non-fiction books.