Tara Westover grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho. She and six her siblings were homeschooled, in the very loosest sense of the word. Her parents operated small businesses and didn’t have much interaction with society, distrustful of the government and doctors.
In spite of her unconventional upbringing, Tara was able to go to college and went on to earn a doctorate at Cambridge.
Educated is the riveting account of her unusual upbringing told in a narrative voice devoid of self-pity.
When I went looking for more books like Educated, I identified the three elements I find most compelling about the book. It’s inspiring. It’s brilliantly written. And it’s full of true adventure and drama. So, this list is broken down into three sections, each highlighting one of those elements.
Top Picks for Books Like Educated
1. The Glass Castle
2. Hillbilly Elegy
3. Crying in H Mart
5. Blue Like Jazz
6. This Beautiful Truth
Note: Clicking on the pictures of book covers in this post will take you to Amazon affiliate links. Purchasing through those links earns commissions for this site.
Inspiring Life Stories
The life stories of others can inspire us. Reading their story enables us to walk their journey vicariously. We borrow their courage to use in our own lives.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls’ classic memoir has often been compared to Tara Westover’s Educated with good reason. There are many similarities.
They are both stories of unorthodox parents, self-directed kids fighting for survival told in a voice absent of pity. It amazes me.
It is also inspiring. Every person on the planet has something about their childhood that they could complain about. Life isn’t perfect, after all. These kids, with many strikes against them in the conventional sense, still did not indulge in self-pity.
They were able to tell the stories of their childhoods objectively without placing blame or bemoaning their fate.
They played the hand that was dealt them. It’s instructive.
Jeannette Walls is the third child of four siblings, with two sisters and a brother. Their family tended towards a nomadic life, often uprooted and replanted, suffering instability of income, instability of emotion and battles with addiction.
Both books highlight the complexity of human personality and relationships.
In neither case are the parents painted as villains, but the good, bad and ugly is portrayed in living color.
Content warning: language and childhood trauma
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
The only thing I didn’t like about this book was gratuitous language. Sometimes language in a dialogue can prove a point, but there’s no good reason for it to be in the narrative.
That being said, I love the social analysis wrapped around a boot-strapping overcomer’s story. J.D. Vance emerged from an impoverished childhood to graduate from Harvard and become a successful lawyer.
I love the positive impact and stability the author’s grandparents brought to his life.
My heart breaks for the young people in this country, especially for the homes that so many grow up in–for the poverty–not of money so much as love, stability, education and faith.
Gifted Hands by Ben Carson
Ben Carson and his brother grew up in a single parent home in Detroit.
Ben credits his mother for the impact on his life that resulted in all of them breaking out of the poverty culture.
She valued education, discipline, the importance of reading and making wise decisions in the use of her resources.
In turn, Ben came to see poverty as a temporary state. He could see the way out. He developed a vision for his life. He eventually attained some of life’s greatest successes as a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic runner and World War II soldier.
Louis Zamperini was a fast runner, but running was only the beginning.
The perseverance and resilience Zamperini displayed in the face the multiple titanic challenges is an inspiration.
Knowing his background and family intensifies the story.
The final resolution is satisfying and heart warming.
Aside from the story, the writing is a work of art.
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi
In 2017 I wrote 55 book reviews for my blog. The best book I read that year was Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi. I heard him speak at my daughter’s graduation from Biola University in December of 2016. At that time he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, which took his life in September of 2017.
If you don’t know much about him, here’s an overview of Nabeel’s life and impact.
I loved the account of the raw, treacherous journey that Nabeel Qureshi took to find faith in Jesus. The sacrifices he made, the intellectual, emotional and relational barriers that kept him from finding faith in Jesus and the story of overcoming those barriers.
Statistics are one thing. One person’s story is something else altogether. What difference can one person’s story make?
Why do we need to know Nabeel’s story? There are millions of devout Muslims on the planet. If we understand Nabeel’s story, we come closer to understanding the Muslim mindset.
Understanding opens the door to greater compassion. We share the same humanity. Our desires and dreams are common to the human experience.
If you’re interested in more compelling biographies or Christian apologetics, read my post Books Like Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus.
Brilliantly Written Memoirs
Some memoirs stand out because they are beautifully written. .
This Beautiful Truth Sarah Clarkson
I was first drawn to This Beautiful Truth by curiosity to read an insider’s look at OCD. I knew Sarah would write beautifully and articulately and she did. Not only with beauty, but with transparency and insight.
I did come to a better understanding of OCD. I’m still curious about root causes. Maybe that’s a mystery we’ll never solve.
The most poignant reflection was her thoughts that she was too broken to ever be a wife and mother. I think everyone can relate to that.
We understand ourselves better by getting to know people who know themselves well. Sarah opens the door.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Michelle grew up with a Korean mother and American father.
Every other summer, she and her mom visited her mom’s family in Korea.
Every relationship with a parent is complicated, but growing up biculturally adds another layer of complexity.
Her mother’s battle with cancer adds another layer. Combine it with a sprinkle of adolescent identity issues and you have the recipe for a great story.
There’s a lot of Korean food in this book: what it is, what it means and how to make it. It highlighted for me the relationship food plays in culture and family.
Content warning: some language
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott has a gift with words and a wry, self-deprecating humor.
This memoir was written specifically for writers, but there’s takeaways for everyone.
Even though I don’t agree with her theology or her politics, I certainly appreciate her gifted writing.
Content: some language and crass descriptions
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Blue Like Jazz is reminiscent of an Anne Lamott memoir. They’re both off the charts in honesty, transparency and authenticity. We identify with those inner insecurities that we can’t even admit to ourselves, much less to others, committing them to black and white and hurling them to the world.
I’ve read Donald Miller’s memoir several times. I have also read Scary Close, which is somewhat of a sequel, but it doesn’t have the same punch as Blue Like Jazz. Growing up fatherless is an underlying theme of Blue Like Jazz. By the time Scary Close was written, Miller has resolved many of his emotional issues and experienced a lot of healing. So, it’s not driven by the same pain.
I believe writing in itself is therapeutic. As is sharing your story. I heard Miller recently talk about the desire people have to be heard and seen and known. He’s been there, done that and now has no more need to be seen and heard and known. He’s heading a successful company now called StoryBrand that helps businesses tell their story.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
If you’ve ever wondered what the life of a shrink looks like, here’s your chance for a behind the scenes deep dive.
Lori pulls back the curtain on the intersection of personal life and professional life. Real human drama. How to become a therapist, how to survive as a therapist, how to see a therapist.
One of our deepest human needs is connection with other humans. And, yet, sometimes we shoot ourself in the foot. The reality is, though, that you really don’t have to have it all together in your life before you can help someone else.
Lori shares the stories of her patients as well as the stories of being on the couch herself. For sure, no man is an island. Intriguing. Compelling.
Heads up for language.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This memior was written by a man diagnosed with cancer. That’s the kind of news that changes your perspective in life.
Kalanith writes in a clear, concise style. What makes the book extraordinary is the author wrestles with the meaning of life even before he’s diagnosed with cancer. It gives the reader pause in the very best ways.
Here’s my takeaway: we make plans for our lives based on how long we think we have left to live. We make different decisions when we think we’re going to live 40 years more or 10 or 1.
Also: at the end of life, our close relationships are what matter most. But, running a close second is a life dedicated to meaningful work and making an impact on our world in some way. I’ve believed for a long time that having meaningful work was a critical element for the human psyche, but I’ve never seen it so clearly before, especially in light of the importance of close relationships at the end of life.
I also enjoyed Kalanitrh’s stories of his experiences in medical school. Interesting to see the behind the scenes snapshots of a surgeon in training.
Beautiful words to express the human experience
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
One of my all-time favorites that I re-visit periodically. Written sixty years ago, this book is truly timeless.
Listen: “What a circus act we women perform everyday of our lives.” Really? 1955?
“how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life, how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center: how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel”
I love her reflections.
In a class by itself
True Life Adventure and Drama
From the comfort of our living room or bedroom, we can experience true life adventure and drama through the eyes of survivors. The dangers were real. Reading their accounts enlarges our world
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Note: Heads up for language.
I didn’t really understand apartheid until I read this book.
Seeing how it played out in people’s lives is sobering.
Trevor Noah has a white father and a black mother. In South Africa, it was illegal for his father and mother to procreate. His very existance was against the law, hence the title, Born a Crime.
It’s mind-blowing to think about the world and the life that Trevor Noah was born into. It’s a cautionary tale, especially for those who have a vote in their government’s laws and leaders.
I liked Noah Trevor’s personal and relatable writing style as well as the occasional political commentary.
The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton
What would it be like to be convicted of a murder you didn’t commit and then spend 30 years on death row?
Amazingly, Anthony Ray Hinton is not an angry, bitter man even though it would be the logical reaction for an extreme injustice.
What’s it like for the men sitting on death row? How would you feel? What would you think? How do you make it every day?
This is an inside look and, incredibly, a hopeful look.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
The story of Ernest Shackleton’s leadership to bring his whole crew out alive after their vessel is lost in the South Pole Seas is inspiring.
It’s a good study in leadership and teamwork. It’s an amazing triumph over the elements, even though the primary mission wasn’t accomplished. The feat was bringing back everyone home alive.
The difficult decisions faced, the feats of survival, the human interaction: these are the elements of the story that draw you in and keep you turning pages.
The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
The ten Boom family takes their Christian faith seriously. They believe the Jews are God’s Chosen People and risk their lives to protect them.
Holland hides Jews from the Germans during World War II. Corrie ten Boom’s incredible true story of espionage, imprisonment and forgiveness.
They continue to trust God in spite of horrific circumstances and they see His hand at work.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
In 1996, eight mountain climbers lost their lives while attempting to summit Everest. Jon Krakauer is a journalist and climber who survived and wrote about it.
There’s a lot of competing forces at play: people who spent a lot of money to summit, the commercialization of summiting, magazines that would pay a lot for the story, advertisers looking for heroes.
No one seemed to know that there was a storm blowing in.
One of the critical factors in the deaths was the enforcement of the turn around time. Hall, the team leader, had been so strict about that for other teams, but with this one, he wasn’t. He didn’t communicate clearly whether the turn around time was one o clock or two clock. On the actual summit day, people were summiting at 4 and 5 o clock.
Should a leader be making decisions that are unquestioned? Does that actually put his team at greater risk because they don’t follow their own wisdom? Actually, the genius of Hall’s leadership was to make the decisions ahead of time, not in the heat of the moment. And the actual breakdown came in not following through with those wise decisions.
The safety net wasn’t there when it needed to be.
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
“Inspired by the incredible true story of one Jewish family separated at the start of World War II, determined to survive—and to reunite—We Were the Lucky Ones is a tribute to the triumph of hope and love against all odds.” —Amazon
The Kurcs were from Radom, Poland, but in the course of the war, three generations are spread throughout Europe and beyond, fleeing the German regime.
I am in awe of this story. It is a light in a dark time and highlights the triumph of love, family and the will to survive.
Educated is a stand out memoir, but it features qualities that are present in other books as well. Build your book stack with the books that have the elements you enjoy most.