The best books about autobiography, memory, identity, and the history of the self

Who am I?

I stumbled upon Hickey’s memoirs and while reading them became captivated not only by the frequently hilarious episodes he recounts from his life, but also by the subject of autobiography and how narrating our life story somehow projects a sense of self and identity to the reader. Trying to grasp this process led me to exploring a wide range of books, and opened up understanding of how our selves are fashioned and what they mean to others. An endlessly fascinating subject.


I wrote...

Who Was William Hickey? A Crafted Life in Georgian England and Imperial India

By James R. Farr,

Book cover of Who Was William Hickey? A Crafted Life in Georgian England and Imperial India

What is my book about?

This book explores an autobiography that was written in the early nineteenth century and will appeal to many readers who are interested in understanding the connections of memory, identity, narrative, and ideas of selfhood. The author of this autobiography, William Hickey, draws upon memories of episodes in his life to project a sense of self through the act of writing, and crafts a persona that, whether true or not, he hopes his readers will accept as his authentic self.

The books I picked & why

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The Prodigal Rake: Memoirs Of William Hickey

By William Hickey, Peter Quennell (editor),

Book cover of The Prodigal Rake: Memoirs Of William Hickey

Why this book?

This is an edition of Hickey’s memoirs that I used in writing my book. It is an abridged version of the complete memoirs, which makes it more accessible to the general reader and includes episodes that are racy, raunchy, and quite often hilarious. The edition really captures the personality of the author, foibles and all. He was a scoundrel and a promiscuous sexual adventurer, but somehow the reader comes away with a fondness for the brutally honest Hickey.

The Prodigal Rake: Memoirs Of William Hickey

By William Hickey, Peter Quennell (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Prodigal Rake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This scarce antiquarian book is a facsimile reprint of the original. Due to its age, it may contain imperfections such as marks, notations, marginalia and flawed pages. Because we believe this work is culturally important, we have made it available as part of our commitment for protecting, preserving, and promoting the world's literature in affordable, high quality, modern editions that are true to the original work.


Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative

By Paul John Eakin,

Book cover of Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative

Why this book?

With an easy-going and very approachable style, Eakin explores how our identity is formed by the autobiographical stories we tell about ourselves. He wears his deeply informed theoretical insights very lightly, and when I encountered this book while working on my book on Hickey, I came away with an appreciation of the importance of narrative in determining who we are, who we think we are, and who we want others to think we are.

Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative

By Paul John Eakin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Living Autobiographically as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Autobiography is naturally regarded as an art of retrospect, but making autobiography is equally part of the fabric of our ongoing experience. We tell the stories of our lives piecemeal, and these stories are not merely about our selves but also an integral part of them. In this way we "live autobiographically"; we have narrative identities. In this book, noted life-writing scholar Paul John Eakin explores the intimate, dynamic connection between our selves and our stories, between narrative and identity in everyday life.

Eakin draws on a wide range of autobiographical writings, from work by Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, and…


The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England

By Dror Wahrman,

Book cover of The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England

Why this book?

Wahrman’s book is eminently readable but nonetheless provocative. He asserts that toward the end of the eighteenth century a radical change, a cultural revolution, in fact, occurred in notions of self and identity. He uses a fascinating and engaging range of evidence to make his point,  from theater to beekeeping, fashion, philosophy, art, travel accounts, and much more. 

The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England

By Dror Wahrman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Making of the Modern Self as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, a radical change occurred in notions of self and personal identity. This was a sudden transformation, says Dror Wahrman, and nothing short of a revolution in the understanding of selfhood and of identity categories including race, gender, and class. In this pathbreaking book, he offers a fundamentally new interpretation of this critical turning point in Western history.
Wahrman demonstrates this transformation with a fascinating variety of cultural evidence from eighteenth-century England, from theater to beekeeping, fashion to philosophy, art to travel and translations of the classics. He discusses notions of self in the…


The Flight of Icarus: Artisan Autobiography in Early Modern Europe

By James S. Amelang,

Book cover of The Flight of Icarus: Artisan Autobiography in Early Modern Europe

Why this book?

Amelang’s book is one-of-a-kind, a non-fiction study of hundreds of autobiographies by a group of people from whom one would not expect literary productions: common artisans and tradesmen and women. He explores through their writings covering several hundred years how a sense of individuality gradually emerged over time, pointing toward the appearance of the modern self.

The Flight of Icarus: Artisan Autobiography in Early Modern Europe

By James S. Amelang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Flight of Icarus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Exploring autobiographical texts written by European urban craftsmen from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, this wide-ranging book studies memoirs, diaries, family chronicles, travel narratives, and other forms of personal writings from Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and England. In the process, it considers the motivations of the authors, the changing forms and emphases of artisan narratives, and, more generally, the significance of written self-expression in early modern popular culture. By analyzing reading and writing as practices laden with social meaning, this work aims to illuminate the changing role of the lower classes and other groups considered marginal in the history…


Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History

By Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce, Barbara Laslett

Book cover of Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History

Why this book?

The authors explore why and how personal narratives should be used as evidence (in my case, in history), and the methods and pitfalls of their use. The authors stress the importance of recognizing that stories that people tell about their lives are never simply individual. Rather, they are told in historically specific times and settings and call on rules, models, and social experiences that govern how story elements link together in the process of self-narration. Stories show how individuals' motivations, emotions, and imaginations have been shaped by their cumulative life experiences. This book reveals in simple, jargon-free prose the understanding that takes place between narrators of personal narratives and their audience and enriches the results immeasurably.

Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History

By Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce, Barbara Laslett

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Telling Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Telling Stories, Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Barbara Laslett argue that personal narratives-autobiographies, oral histories, life history interviews, and memoirs-are an important research tool for understanding the relationship between people and their societies. Gathering examples from throughout the world and from premodern as well as contemporary cultures, they draw from labor history and class analysis, feminist sociology, race relations, and anthropology to demonstrate the value of personal narratives for scholars and students alike.

Telling Stories explores why and how personal narratives should be used as evidence, and the methods and pitfalls of their use. The authors stress…


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