Best biographies and memoirs of 2020

Al Woodworth on December 02, 2020

Best biographies and memoirs of 2020

This year was filled with biographies and memoirs that educated and entertained, and that made us belly laugh, cry, and marvel at the resilience of the human spirit. Our Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2020 list is filled with stories of chefs and lawyers, leaders and immigrants, rock-star musicians and underdog athletes. But there was one book in particular that caught our attention and wouldn't let go.

I remember reading A Knock at Midnight for the first time in April. I raged with tears, with sadness, and then with hope at the story of a young Black lawyer trying to make her way in the world as the War on Drugs incarcerated members of her family, her community, and Black men and women across the United States for life. Brittany K. Barnett's memoir is something special: it's a book that changed me, that made me want to talk about it with everyone and anyone that would listen. And I did. And then we did on the editorial team.

When it came time to pick the Best Book of the Year, Barnett's memoir quickly rose to the top of our list, and we named A Knock at Midnight the Best Book of 2020. In the past 10 years, only two other books in the biography and memoir category have hit the number one spot: Tara Westover's Educated and Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We are beyond honored to add Brittany K. Barnett's memoir to that short and esteemed list.

I could go on and on about each of the books on our list of the Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2020, but instead I'll leave you with some of our favorites. Be sure to check out the full list here as well as the 100 Best Books of the Year.

A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom by Brittany K. Barnett

At times, Brittany K. Barnett’s memoir reads like page-turning crime fiction; at others, a galvanizing and redemptive portrait of a lawyer trying to defend Black lives that were never protected in the first place. Urgent, necessary, hopeful—and a knockout read—which is why it was our #1 pick of 2020. —Al Woodworth

Group by Christie Tate

Christie Tate was a summer intern at a law firm and at the top of her class, and yet her memoir opens with her sitting in her car alone, wishing someone would shoot her. Written with the gift of hindsight, Group is an honest, heartbreaking, and hilarious look at reaching rock bottom and climbing your way back to life. —Sarah Gelman

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Hidden Valley Road is a medical mystery story—with twists and reveals to rival any thriller—that shows how an all-American family was ravaged as an elusive, centuries-old mental illness caught and kept them in its crosshairs for decades. —Vannessa Cronin

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit's Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran

Sigh, Gone is one of the funniest and most profound memoirs of 2020. Without rose-colored glasses and with a flair for humor, Tran recounts his childhood as a Vietnamese kid growing up in a small Pennsylvania town: the racism, dislocation, and violence that surrounded him, how he fought to fit in, and how he fell in love with literature. —Al Woodworth

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcom X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

This intimate and thorough rendering of Malcom X’s life, work, and death will amaze, surprise, and maybe even change your outlook on this civil rights icon. Les Payne conducted hundreds of interviews with those closest to him, and it’s these personal insights that make this book come alive. Absorbing, sweeping, and human, it's no wonder it won a National Book Award. —Al Woodworth

The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir by Michele Harper

A powerful portrait of a Black female emergency room doctor who is on the front lines in some of the most marginalized neighborhoods in this country, and who has a front row seat to the systematic racism and misogyny that permeates the healthcare system. The Beauty in Breaking is Dr. Harper’s story of breaks and fixes, of healing emotionally and physically, and will encourage you to take the time to understand the pain and the hurt as you recover. A page-turning meditation on the power of healing. —Al Woodworth

Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters by Dominique Crenn

The first female chef to receive three Michelin stars in the US, Dominque Crenn—who never attended culinary school—recounts her journey from a small town outside of Versailles to owning three highly acclaimed restaurants and speaking out about restaurant culture, sexism, discrimination, and climate change. This is a fascinating memoir by a woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. —Seira Wilson

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

This collection of essays from the bestselling author of H Is for Hawk waxes poetic on things ranging from lunar eclipses, to nocturnal bird-watching in Manhattan, to mushroom hunting, and even migraines. Macdonald's gift is that she notices things, the magic and the wonder and the consolation of nature, and she mines what those things have to teach us about being better humans and stewards of this planet. —Erin Kodicek

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

Larson's latest cements his position as one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time. Many historians have taken on Churchill, but Larson has done it and given us something fresh, something relevant to our times. And he has added details not to the edges of Churchill’s biography, but to the very heart of it. —Chris Schluep

A Most Beautiful Thing: The True Story of America's First All-Black High School Rowing Team by Arshay Cooper

A heroic story of triumphing over adversity, of mentorship and personal investment, endurance and conviction, and the first ever Black high school rowing team. This is a memoir of underdogs fighting their way to the top, but it’s also about how an entire population is left out of the opportunity loop and how a seemingly small thing like sports can change lives. This book perfectly encapsulates the glory of sports and you'll be rooting for these boys to row in unison and cross the finish line.—Al Woodworth

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