Autobiographies & Memoirs

What you won't find here: tell-all celebrity confessions ghostwritten by a former member of the staff or entourage.

We like to keep our memoirs classy, and by that we mean literary. We're not saying you should never read just-the-facts-ma'am bios (we suggest you steer clear of the celebrity trash mentioned above), but there's something to be said for reading autobiographical works as good or better than any critically acclaimed novel.

Famous people have been penning reflections on their own lives almost as long as writing and people have existed simultaneously. Even portions of the Old Testament are written in first person, and though subsequent autobiographers have preferred to chronicle themselves in the third person, the fact remains that we generally want to hear how things transpired from the mouths of the principle players themselves.

It's an established fact that a lot of untruth and outright lying goes into memoirs. Authors either want to appear better than they were, want their opponents to appear worse than they were, or simply like to invent stories about themselves (they're writers, after all). But how much can we actually know about someone else's life? and if they're proven untrustworthy as their own narrators, doesn't that say something significant about them, too?

Not all of these are happy books. In fact, most of them aren't "happy" in the sense of things always going well for the protagonists, or things ending well, or even wellness as a general theme. But part of the attraction of the inside scoop is that we get to know and better understand the human condition as it is, rather than as we would like it to be.

Ben Franklin was one of the true geniuses of the American Revolution. In his Autobiography (as though there could, or would, be no other), he talks about being a vegetarian. He permitted himself to eat fish, however, because though they were meat, they ate each other, and were thus unsoiled by the things that usually taint other meats. How would we know this brilliant man could be so illogical were it not for his own record of his own life?

If all autobiographies were similarly entertaining, we'd read them all. They often are, but there are others (like The Lost Executioner, about a genocidal commandant of a Cambodian death camp) that we read for far different reasons. They show us the black human heart, fully exposed. We are terrified when we read these memoirs, and we weep, as often as not because we recognize ourselves in the faces of the men and women on the cover.

Memoirs, whether confessional or obscurantist, are secrets whispered from the author to the reader. Sometimes the author writes as through a megaphone, at other times as though whispering through mittened hands. It's not our job to untangle every objectively true statement from those that aren't. It's our job to listen to the words spoken, and to hear the underlying truth each memoirist conveys.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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