Thursday, July 7, 2011

Thoughts on Memoirs

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.


Eric said...

I kinda sorta respectfully disagree: not with the part about everybody having a story, but with the part about who ought to be writing a memoir.

I mean, most private figures don't have nearly as many public gaffes and exposed misdeeds to lie about, rationalize away or paper over. And isn't that what memoirs are all about, really?

David said...

Sure they do. It's just for a smaller public.

And how else will that smaller public get larger if they don't tell their stories?

Julia said...

I agree - thinking back, a lot of the very best memoirs in history were the ones that were incidental, even accidental. There is the little poem about the white cat Pangur Ban, by the owner of the cat, written in Old Irish in the margins of some church latin tome. It tells us all kinds of interesting things, but it's only a few words long, written by a nobody who was bored with copying Latin. Then there are those tapes of folk music performers, interviewed about what they did, in the Folk Music Archives. They are much more interesting than any memoir I've ever read (not that I'm exactly an expert - but that's the point, they're mostly pretty boring).

Nathan said...

I'm divided on this one. On the one hand, there are people like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, etc. who are famous for being famous. They're likely to publish memoirs because they're attention whores and there's an audience that will buy. They're just not likely to tell us any of the really interesting stuff (and I don't doubt they could).

On the other hand, Ken Burns' Civil War is a brilliant demonstration of how fascinating and moving a bunch of "nobodies"'s letters home can be.

John the Scientist said...

And isn't another function of memiors to give future historians a bit of explanation about the attitudes and physical limitations that bounded people in the past?

One of the ways I teach my kids about history is through memiors or pseuso-memior such as Little Women, and the talk of lighting lamps and so forth gets to their questions of "why didn't they just phone someone". Adults have subtler but similar biases about the way people behaved in the past, and if history is to have use as the record of a living experiment in human behavior, we have to keep track of the variables that aren't isolated. The memiors of "Great Men" don't do that so well, but the memoirs of people like Mary Chestnut help us do that as much or more than Lee or Grant.

Carol Elaine said...

There's a reason such radio shows as "This American Life" and "The Moth Radio Hour" have such large followings. They may not be memoirs in the strictest sense, but they share the stories of ordinary people going through extraordinary moments of time - or ordinary moments of time told in an extraordinary way.

This is far more interesting to me than the written drooling of certain celebrities (looking in the directions of Palins mère and fille).

David said...

There’s always going to be chaff among the wheat, just as there will always be Kardashians who will write memoirs. Even those can be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind, though – the interesting things they say aren’t there intentionally. I once read a fascinating memoir written by a Kardashian equivalent from the 1930s.

I think John is right about how memoirs give us a window into history (as Ken Burns did by using letters and diaries). One of the big struggles in history over the last century was about ownership – whose stories get to be told. Despite the resurgence in Great White Man history of late, there is a general consensus among historians that the rest of us also have stories worth telling.

But historians are lousy at that sort of thing except in the aggregate - most people don't tell their stories, so all we have to work with is statistics. Having ordinary people tell their stories makes it possible for historians to tell their stories.

I love This American Life for that reason (among others). They’re stories about people getting through their days - and if there is a better way to phrase that than “stories of ordinary people going through extraordinary moments of time - or ordinary moments of time told in an extraordinary way” I haven’t found it – thanks Carol Elaine.

The fact that we’re discussing this on a blog is sort of “meta” isn’t it?