A while ago I found myself scanning through a review of a new memoir, one that I really had no intention of actually going out and reading myself. But it was a Sunday morning and I had a plate full of breakfast in front of me and the Sunday New York Times Book Review section in front of that, and if there is a better way to spend a Sunday morning I haven’t found it.
Although this particular review did make me wonder about that position.
I have no idea who actually wrote the memoir under discussion, and I rather doubt the reviewer did either. Very little of the review was devoted to the memoir itself, in fact. Most of it was given over to an extended editorial on the declining standards for memoir writers these days. Apparently back in The Golden Age of Memoirs, only people who had achieved great milestones, accomplished monumental tasks, or otherwise burned their names into the pages of history through the flaming heat of their actions would write memoirs. The function of the rest of us was to read them, not write them.
One of the many things I have learned over the course of my life is that everybody has a story to tell, and to draw an arbitrary line across society and say that “above this line you can tell your story and below it you can’t” is both shortsighted and arrogant.
I remember watching a news reporter on television once explain how he got his feature stories – the ones that aren’t really news so much as just interesting slices of life. All he needed, he said, was a phone book, a dart, and a way to get to whatever address the dart landed on. After that, the stories took care of themselves. And to demonstrate this, he pulled out his phone book, had the cameraman select a page at random and threw a dart at it. He then went to the address – a trailer parked out in the middle of nowhere – and interviewed the first person to come to the door.
And it was fascinating.
I thought about this a great deal over the last week as I was reading Listening Is An Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project.
For those of you not familiar with this project, basically they have a number of booths here and there across the country, including a couple that travel around. You make a 40-minute appointment and either bring someone to interview or they have someone who will interview you, and at the end you get a CD of your story and another copy goes to the Library of Congress. This book was a selection from over 10,000 of those stories, and it was the most moving thing I have read in years.
There are precious few major historical events in this book – in fact, the weakest section is precisely the one that tries to focus on such things.
What makes the stories is the smallness of them – the focus on daily life, on the bonds that connect people and the efforts people make to form them, maintain them, and in some cases break them. Those stories tell us what it means to be human and show us people in the process of becoming so.
And that’s what memoirs are all about, really.