Booking Through Thursday: It’s All about Me

November 5, 2009 at 10:15 am | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

I love both.  They both have their drawbacks, but usually I’d rather read a biography or memoir than anything else.

Biographies are best when you’re curious about the person.  When I read a biography, it’s because I’ve sought it out and I want to know more about the subject.  The biggest problem with this is that sometimes I don’t like the person as much any more after I know more details.  For instance, ever since I read that Gandhi used to “test himself” by getting into bed with naked girls, I’ve just… wrestled with it.  Still, biographies have the advantage of historical context, research, and a broader POV.

Autobiographies are a bit of a guilty pleasure.  There’s an element of “race to the bottom” in memoir:  “I will disembowel myself emotionally if you give me a book deal.  I have the worst childhood of anyone who ever lived.  Now that you’ve seen life through my eyes, you can never judge me again.”  I loved A Reliable Wife, but then I read Goolrick’s memoir The End of the World as We Know It and it gave me mixed feelings about the novel.  I can’t leave memoir alone, and in this case I will go out and read about anyone as long as the story seems compelling, but at the same time it can feel a little dirty afterward.  Maybe there’s a variety of autobiography that is more positive; maybe it’s what I’m drawn to; or maybe it’s just a trend that will pass.

I’m fascinated by the difference between the story of someone’s life as told by the subject and by an observer, or series of observers.  There are historical figures who have inspired reams and reams of commentary, and it seems like even centuries later there is still more to be researched and reevaluated.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have an autobiography by everyone who became the subject of a bio?  Then we could compare notes, especially when the biographer never met the subject in life.

It’s a compelling issue for me, because frankly, I’ve had stuff in my life that I could quite probably sell as a memoir.  Yet I know from long experience that my memories do not usually jibe with my family’s.  That’s part of the problem.  One of the things that makes a family dysfunctional is that the ‘perpetrator’ either denies everything, has no memory of it, didn’t realize it was significant, interprets it in a flattering light, ignores it out of narcissism, or blames everything on the ‘victim.’  Or all of the above.  “The one who got away” is most likely the only person who “buys” the story.  You want to write a memoir when you feel like nobody is on your side.  At least a neutral audience might consider hearing me out, right?  I think the act of writing a memoir is an attempt to establish one’s sanity, to reinterpret perceptions and adjust to the normal world after attempting to escape the surreal vortex one came from.

On the other hand, memory is notoriously fallible.  A biographer comes in, does hard research, and comes up for air thinking, “There is no way this happened the way my subject claims.”  A memoirist is going to interpret everything in his or her own favor while simultaneously attributing significance to all the wrong things.  We all have plans for our lives, and we tell ourselves a story arc in our minds that most likely has nothing to do with how our lives actually turn out.  A biographer can look at this more objectively.

What I get out of both biography and memoir is the sense of a life as a story, one with patterns, one with recognizable mentors and villains, lucky chances, and successful or unsuccessful reactions to circumstance.  It seems like a pretty good way to get some objective perspective on my own life.


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  1. Great answer! You can find my BTT HERE

  2. That is so true about family members recalling the same incident differently. After so many years have passed, whose memory do you trust most? And I know what you mean by sometimes finding out too much about a person, and not liking them as much anymore. Sometimes it’s intriguing to read all the little secrets from someone’s life, other times it’s just too much information.

  3. I like biographies of people that are dead because their life story is neatly wrapped up: beginning, middle and end. I like memoirs, but it’s a mixed bag.

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