In last April’s edition of The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison defended the Memoir and other forms of published personal reflection as being effective tools for readers to use in order to understand or investigate ways of being. She argues that books in this genre need not be trendy and vacuous or narcissistic and confessional outlets. Alongside “Self help” or “How To” types of texts, the Memoir connects the audience with a journey or a path that someone else has followed and that the reader may be about to embark upon or is in the process of experiencing in some form. For many, to sit quietly and privately with another person’s viewpoint on an odyssey through an illness, a pursuit of spiritual and physical healing, or a path to success or failure and redemption is enlightening and empowering. The reader is anonymous. The reader does not need to ask questions or share their own experience. They can simply be with the words.
I must say that I have, for a long time, been skeptical of the current popularity of the Memoir. Of course, someone who has had an impact on the world or in their field is someone who should write a Memoir or an Autobiography. Scholars and fans alike want the inside story in the individual’s words. Even if rhetorical authority is in question, the entry into this person’s world is at least a lead that can direct you to other research or leads. But what about the Memoir that is from a person who does not seem to have accomplished anything substantial except that they were published? I hear Terry Gross from NPR often interviewing someone whose just published their Memoir. Someone who may not have written anything previously and has been obscure otherwise. Or, perhaps this person has not been writing long enough or prolifically to have much to offer in the way of life experience yet. Why in the world do I care what they did or when or how? Jamison enlightened me.
We can take from these writers’ reflections what we need or want to know. We can adopt for ourselves a person’s approach to life or feel less alone in our own dilemma. Overall we engage and respond rather than just coming to their texts as voyeurs or passive audiences. Jamison writes that “[l]ife is evidence. It’s fodder for argument.”
I still choose to read about someone who has lived at least 50 years or who has been in a business or discipline for at least a few decades, but that is my preference. I want to read about long-term events and experiences. Someone else may need timely events mapped out and have access to immediate answers. Ultimately, I am converted. The Memoir is of value and the wider the variety of authors and discussion points, the more people who can benefit from the wisdom imparted.