Embarrassing story: When I was a newbie grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, I turned in a review of a book that my professor did not recognize. He asked me why I chose this book to review. I responded, “Because it was on my shelf.” He looked horrified.
As Paul Newman might say, “This was a failure to communicate.” I thought I was bringing the value of simplicity and economy to the process. My professor saw only shoddy thinking or academic sloth.
I named this blog 100 memoirs because of the advice given by Heather Sellers in Chapter by Chapter to read 100 books in the genre you aspire to. I have several thousand books in my basement library, collected over many years of being an English professor and avid reader. I knew I had read 50-100 autobiographies and biographies. But I began buying new ones. My future daughter-in-law works in the publishing industry, so new memoir began pouring in. Thanks, Chelsea!
So the question now is. Which ones are best? If reading forms the mind, and if reading takes precious time, then surely one wants to read the best 100 memoirs and not just 100 memoirs!?
When a form becomes popular enough long enough, a canon emerges. That may be happening in the memoir genre right now. Perhaps you and I can contribute to that process by defining what we admire most and selecting memoirs that fit those criteria. Or, we could flip the process by naming the books and then describing what makes them great. More and more courses are being taught about autobiography and memoir. Professors are creating reading lists and these eventually become the canon.
The beautiful sentences contest taught me that asking for the best without describing the criteria can produce frustration. So let’s start with criteria.
I will throw out one criterion and give an example. Then I hope you will follow with your own examples or another criterion.
Criterion: Authentic voice. Agents and publishers love this word. And I do too. Voice on the surface looks like personality. For example, Julia Childs’ memoir of her years in Paris and America as she built her career sounds just like her distinctive voice on the air–a little breathless and patrician without sounding pedantic.
Classic memoirs earn their status in part because of the unique voice of the author. Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, for example, takes you far, fast. You move with him through the quotidian details of the day with energy. When he is hungry, his readers are also. He gets you to the destination rapidly, but your senses are more alive than if you had lingered for hours on the path.
Natalie Goldberg’s newest book on memoir contains a list of her favorite memoirs at the end. Some Amazon reviewers have made lists of their best ones. I would like to create my own here. But I need your help. I may also need Anthony’s help with the technology. I think I need a list on the home page of this website. That way, readers can see it emerge. There are books I reviewed in the blog that I would not put on the list of 100 best. And there are many on other people’s lists that I have not yet read. There are also lots of books I have read but not reviewed.
Are such lists helpful to you? Would you like to see a list on the home page?
Is authentic voice a useful criterion for selecting high quality memoir?
What one memoir (or other book) stands out for you because of the voice of the author?