Autobiographies seem to always be written by famous people. Of course. But are there any that were written by obscure people who had somewhat interesting lives? I don’t mean people who had one thing in their lives that brought them fame, or people who were close to someone famous, but people who were truly anonymous, yet whose life story was interesting enough to get published. And I don’t mean people who write novels based on their own lives, but actual non-fiction autobiographies. Anyone?

There are many unpublished autobiographies by people you’ve never heard of. In fact, writers often get requests from people saying “I had a very interesting life” (often with their overcoming drugs or disease) “Could you help me write an autobiography?”

For actually published autobiographies, there was the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ;)* You could also make a case that The Education of Henry Adams might fit – Henry was a journalist, but hardly famous when he wrote it.

In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott was a well received and popular autobiography; at the time it was published, Abbott was a life-long criminal and the book was about his life in the prison system. The book (and his other writing) got him paroled, though he later murdered someone and was sent back to prison, where he committed suicide.


Try searching for books published as a memoir rather than autobiography, you’ll probably find more of the authors you’re interested in.

You got it. Memoirs are the hottest thing in non-fiction. Just go to the New York Times Bestsellers lists. You’ll run out of fingers to count them.

Personally, I can’t imagine what the appeal is but since you want them you’ll be hip deep as soon as you walk in a bookstore.

ETA: Just a nitpick, but Henry Adams was a historian, in fact the President of the American Historical Association. He worked for a newspaper for about a year early in his life, but he hasn’t any more real claim to be a journalist than I have even though I’ve written articles.

I don’t think James Frey was particularly famous for anything before he wrote “A Million Little Pieces.” I don’t know if that counts, though, since the book turned out to be a fraud.

I’ve got just the book for you: History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova.

A couple of years ago I found a complete set for 30 dollars in an used bookshop and bought it on a whim. The book is just amazing. My set comes in 9 volumes and I read one at the beginning of each year. Casanova must have led one of the most interesting lives ever. He seduced hundreds of women, was imprisoned multiple times, had dozens of professions, met all famous people of his day… The guy did everything and was interested by everything. If this book was a novel you’d never be able to suspend disbelief enough to accept one person could have done so many different things in such little time.

Casanova is somewhat famous, so maybe you’d think that would disqualify him from your thread, but the thing is, he’s only famous because of his book. Were it not for his memoirs nobody would remember Casanova

Just this year, off the top of my head: Orange is the New Black. Not an autobio, but a memoir of time in a women’s prison.

So long as you have an interesting story, you can sell a book of it.

Moll Flanders

Is this some kind of meta-joke that backfired?

Moll Flanders is a novel.

My great-uncle wrote one about his experiences in WW2. He was an ambulance driver, and was part of the team that liberated Buchenwald camp.

(I hope the link is OK to post)

Right now, I’m reading Memoirs of a Breton Peasant by Jean-Marie Deguignetin which the author, the self-taught Breton peasant of the title, details the nearly 70 years of his life and his constant struggles against dire poverty, forced-ignorance, discrimination, the French upper classes, and the Catholic Church (Deguignet was an atheist). Needless to say, those forces eventually beat him down so the tone of his writing is more than a little bitter. Along the way, Deguignet also describes his tenure in the French military (the one institution in France at that time where someone in his class could escape their situation of grinding dead-end poverty and actually get a bit of an education) and his experiences fighting in the Crimean War, the Italian War for Independence, and the disasterous attempt to prop up Emperor Maximilian in Mexico.

Every time I go to the library, I find about a hundred new memoirs on the “NEW ARRIVALS” shelf, usually about people with diseases or emotional disturbances (or both), and I wonder why no one ever told all these people that no one else ever finds your life quite as fascinating as you do…

Richard Feynman was somewhat famous, but he was a scientist, not a celebrity. He wrote a couple of autobiographies, and he was quite a character.

A Fortunate Life is a good one.

I want to visit Tuva because of his book Tuva or Bust. I have a copy that has the little recording inside still intact =)

One of the most popular memoirs to come out in the last few years is “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. She had a very unconventional upbringing and is a very good writer. She followed it up this year with the story of her grandmother’s eventful life (novelized) “Half-Broke Horses”

You might want to try A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I didn’t care for it too much but plenty of people love it. I know Dave Eggers had some credits before he wrote it, but I don’t think he was “famous”, and certainly not a household name (nor is he even now, I believe).