The Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2018

Jon Foro on November 19, 2018
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As difficult as it is to select the best books of the year in some categories, the biographies and memoirs list practically writes itself. There are so many that make our monthly best-of collections that the problem becomes what to leave off - with only 20 slots available (admittedly a self-imposed constraint), I always come away knowing I've short-strawed any number of deserving books. On the other hand, it's also a welcome opportunity to revisit a few that, for whatever reason (time or ignorance), we passed over the first time around.

Alas, this is the definition of high-class problem. Here is a closer look at five of our favorites for 2018, which doesn't even include Tara Westover's Educated, our pick for the very best book of the year. (Find a link to that below, along with the rest.) And if biographies and memoirs are't your thing, check out our selections in over 15 categories, including literature & fiction, children's & young adult, mystery & thrillers, and cooking, food & wine.

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Swell: A Sailing Surfer's Voyage of Awakening by Captain Liz Clark

When it comes to dropping out, almost everyone has a version of the dream: An off-grid cabin in the mountains; a life on the road in a tricked-out van, preferably with a dog indeterminate bloodlines; or maybe you just want to bunker in place with a cache of freeze-dried foods and ammunition. For most of us, it's just something to fantasize about as we pass the the workaday hours of our daily routines. But Captain Liz Clark made it happen. With the help of a mentor, she realized a lifelong dream when she launched her 40-foot sailboat from Santa Barbara on a voyage in search of beauty, meaning, and surf. Of course, it's not always easy. Swell recounts the crests and troughs of her ongoing adventure, and the accompanying images (taken by Clark) might have you reconsidering that task chair.

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

There are many biographies of Frederick Douglass, but there has not been a major one written in nearly twenty five years. David W. Blight’s new book is a valuable contribution to the understanding of Douglass as both a man and as a historical figure, utilizing papers that had not previously been available. Although direct in his message, Douglass, like many great men, was a person of contradictions. Blight explores those contradictions, painting Douglass as a complete human being, even as he lays out the clear argument for his greatness. This thorough and highly readable biography traces Douglass’s entire life, starting on a plantation in Maryland, covering his education and eventual escape, his two marriages, his complicated relationship with his family, and his work as an abolitionist and orator. In the end, the reader will walk away with a deeper grasp of a still deeply misunderstood chapter of American history, as well as understanding, respect, and admiration for one of the county’s greatest figures.

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Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

When you finish Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ memoir of growing up as the daughter of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, you’ll feel sorry for her—not just because Jobs was a jerk a lot of the time, but because some readers will be too busy rubbernecking at her famous dad to notice what a great writer his daughter is. In Small Fry, Brennan-Jobs moves back and forth in time, balancing her memories of Jobs' often tough treatment of her with his unpredictable moments of openness and generosity. This artfully constructed, self-critical memoir feels like so much more than axe-grinding: what does look good is Brennan-Jobs’s future as a writer.

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Robin by Dave Itzkoff

This monument of a biography is an intimate and thorough examination of Robin Williams as both man and performer. From his years as a reclusive kid playing up in his attic bedroom, to his early days of stand-up, to the runaway success of Mork and Mindy, to movies, addiction, recovery, and fame, his need for affirmation was the thread that drew him forward. He sought that affirmation by working tirelessly, and Itzkoff chronicles the actor’s successes and failures, as well as his close friendships in and out of show business, to create a deep psychological portrait. Robin Williams possessed an earnestness and a craving for honesty that made him shine brighter even as it threatened to destroy him. This is a bittersweet read, with highs and lows, but the Robin Williams who emerges is as compelling as his greatest performances.

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The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree

India is the world’s fastest growing democracy, with an economy that is rapidly expanding, making a handful of Indians fantastically wealthy. At the same time, millions of Indians live in poverty, sometimes subsisting just feet from the fancy, almost unimaginable urban homes of the super-rich. James Crabtree uses the home of the reclusive billionaire Mukesh Ambani (that is his home on the cover) as a symbol of an Indian system that Crabtree likens—quite convincingly—to our own Gilded Age. Like in other places around the world, fair government appears to be no match against the vast sums of private capital that the “Bollygarchs” employ to cement their interests. Crabtree uses interviews and riveting reporting to give us a fascinating look into the sudden, sometimes shocking, and seemingly insurmountable rise of the Indian super-elite, as they surf the wave of globalism.


More of the best biographies and memoirs of 2018:


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