Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why I Read Memoirs

I'm reading another memoir now, one I picked up in a local used (mostly) bookstore.  It's called Let's Take the Long Way Home, a book about the friendship of two women writers. They meet because they also have new puppies.  On the docket after that is another memoir, Ashes to Ashes, by Benjamin Busch, as well as a novel, Ella Minnow Pea.

Why do I read memoirs?  Until a few years ago, I was barely aware that memoirs existed.  I was an English Major, which meant that I read literature and poetry, and liked it.  I even started a book club here at my church, "Faith and Fiction," because I was convinced that God was lurking around any good story, in some way or another.   I remember hearing novelist Alice McDermott interviewed on the radio a few years ago.  Perhaps the memoir was just becoming popular, but I remember that she was quite critical of the genre at the time.  Fiction is rigorous; you are really creating something, not simply re-shaping a part of your own story.  (I believe she has softened her critique somewhat.)

There is something a little unsettling about looking through the Biography section at the bookstore, and seeing all of the people telling all of their different stories, some of them sordid, some strange, some exotic, some even ordinary.   A part of me wonders if the writing and reading of all of these memoirs is really a healthy sign.   The other part of me reads memoirs, anyway, for these reasons:

1.  Some of them are extremely well-written.  I'll admit it, I love reading good sentences like some people like eating chocolate.  No kidding.  It's great to have a good message, but I'll take a well-tempered sentence over a too-righteous message any day.  I picked up A Three Dog Life almost entirely because of the beauty of the sentences. 

2.  There is an experience foreign to me that I want to know something about.  This is one of the reasons I picked up the book The Latehomecomer.  It is the story of a Hmong family's journey from the refugee camps of Thailand to St. Paul, Minnesota, told through the eyes of one of the daughters.  This is a perspective entirely foreign to me.  And yet....

3.  There is something with which I can make a connection.  I do not know the immigrant experience of the Hmong, but my family has its own immigrant story, so I want to make the connection with others who have been displaced in other ways.  In the same way, I chose Michelle Norris' book about her experience growing up African American in Minneapolis, The Grace of Silence, both because her experience was so different from my own, and also because her address was so jarringly close to mine.

4.  They are stories about God, somehow.  Sometimes it is overt, as in In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, which is a story of a man who went to prison for check-kiting.  He happens to be imprisoned in Lousiana, in a place which is also a leper colony.  At the same time that he studies the inmates there, learns the history of the prison and the people, he also comes to terms with himself as a criminal in need of redemption:  an outcast.   Most of the stories I read are not conversion stories in any way, but there are stories of grief and loss and failure and transformation, which means that faith or doubt or unbelief reside there. 

The first memoirs, long ago, were written by generals telling stories of their battles, and by religious, telling stories of their conversion.  We've come a long way since then, but in this secular, individual era of ours, I think that memoirs are still, at their heart, faith stories.  In them, people take their lives, or bits of them, anyway, and make them into something that is bigger, and about more than themselves.   And the best ones are both strange and familiar, a window into an exotic world where we still see ourselves. 

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