Must-Read Memoirs

Roz Chast cartoon from the August 13 & 20, 2012 issue of The New Yorker

Having just finished Cheryl Strayed’s excellent memoir Wild (Knopf 2012), I’ve been thinking about all the great memoirs I’ve read in the past five years, since I started reading personal narrative accounts in earnest. It’s not news that in the past ten years or so memoirs have made a huge surge in popularity. What was once a genre of dry, summarized accounts of the lives of famous people or family members has become a juicy canon of life stories that often follow novel-style trajectories. Memoirs have become so ubiquitous it’s impossible not to wonder why we’re drawn to these personal accounts, most with intimate details we once might have blushed to read about. Is this another sign of our penchant for oversharing (via Facebook, Twitter, etc.)? Maybe. But I’m less cynical about it: I think we love memoirs because our understanding of humanity is enhanced by personal accounts of hardship, failure, tragedy, love, and success. Maybe true stories hold the most weight and teach us the most about who we are.

I know that’s true for me. Since a writing teacher a few years back suggested I start reading as many memoirs as I could, I’ve had one on my shelf at all times. Here are a few of the ones that stayed with me the most, my list of “must-reads” (in no particular order).

1. Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. Maybe someone has done a better job writing about coming of age in extreme poverty in Ireland in the mid 1900s, but not that I’m aware of. A beautiful, beautiful book.

2. Lucky, by Alice Sebold. Once you read Lucky you learn the source of all of Sebold’s demons. A graphic violent event in the first few pages might hold you to your chair; I believe I started to sob, threw the book across the floor, then went and picked it up and finished reading.

3. Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Hugely best-selling, this memoir has of course also been raked over the coals by many (Eat, Pray, Shit I heard someone call it the other day). I put this book on my list because I think Gilbert manages to capture the very real societal pressures that thirty-something American women feel to conform to marriage, child-rearing, and a certain life path. I think of it as a quiet memoir of rebellion?and she’s funny, too.

4. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. Just great. It details a childhood so shocking, at times you just have to shake your head.

5. This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. Wolff may be the most controlled prose writer I have read. This is an example of a memoir that’s nothing but the facts. And the facts are intense.

6. The Burn Journals, by Brent Runyon. I loved this memoir about a troubled kid trying to clown his way through a disfiguring depression. I first heard part of this memoir on This American Life.

7.Truth & Beauty, by Ann Patchett. An interesting memoir because it isn?t about the author as much as it is about her dear friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy. Incidentally, Grealy?s own memoir, Autobiography of a Face, is on my to-read list.

Some memoirs I have known

8. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Inimitably Didion, this memoir is one of the quintessential memoirs of grief and death. Her sequel, Blue Nights, was for me (and for many critics) much less successful.

And if you get through those, you might try Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer; Made for You and Me, by Caitlin Shetterly; Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic, by Martha Beck; The Only Girl in the Car, by Kathy Dobie; Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy; and The Bill from My Father, by Bernard Cooper.

Does anyone else read memoir? If so, what are your favorites?

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