Reading memoirs, a fast-growing and beloved genre, can feel like looking into a mirror. Reading about other people’s lives often gives us insight into our own, but it also wonderfully exposes us to how others have lived so differently from ourselves. We read them for entertainment for sure, but don’t we also want to learn life lessons from others who’ve gone on before? If you’re like me, I need all the help I can get!
But what is memoir exactly? It’s sometimes hard to pin down, but the genre can be described as autobiographical writing in the first person, but not necessarily about your entire life. It can consist of a memorable year in review or a specific topic that you’ve lived, like a trip or a group experience. First written by historical figures like Julius Caesar and Augustine, memoir writing came into its own in the 18th and 19th centuries and has flourished in the 20th and 21st. Once perhaps the domain of the politician, public artist or celebrity figure, now we can read memoirs by just about anybody who has the dream and the discipline to put their life into print. It’s a great example of democracy in action! Here are a few quality examples, in my opinion:
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is an amazing story about the author surviving — and somehow thriving — while being raised by eccentric, nomadic parents. Growing up in a family that eschewed conventional living, Jeannette endured poverty and a life on the run. I was struck with how even-handed she described both her parents through often desperate, chaotic times. A page-turner!
Tuesdays with Morrie by gifted Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom is a striking memoir about slowing down from a driven, careerist lifestyle to reflect on life and death through an unlikely friendship with his dying former university professor, Morrie Schwartz. Morrie comes across as a wise and patient teacher, even with a terminal disease. He confesses to Albom that he gave himself only 20 minutes each morning for self-pity, and then it was on to living life to the full.
Elie Wiesel endured a Nazi concentration camp with his father during World War II, and lived to tell their gripping story in Night. It’s evocative writing of the loss of innocence and hope, and, as he put it, the death of God. In reviewing the book, Ruth Franklin makes a telling point about how all good memoirs are created: “the obligation to remember and to testify, certainly, but also the artistic and even moral obligation to construct a credible persona and to craft a beautiful work… truth in prose, it turns out, is not always the same thing as truth in life.” Seems like memoirs are not exact transcriptions of what we did and thought each day, but they are true nonetheless at a deeper level!
Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda is a good place to begin if we really want to get to know the memoir landscape. It’s a fascinating, playful look at how the genre has developed over the centuries, and the controversies it has endured. If anything, it helps us realize how broad the brand has become. And, if anything, it gives us a long list of titles that will keep us reading until maybe we decide to take up the (metaphorical) pen ourselves!