Why We Love Memoir 2

WHAT IS IT ABOUT MEMOIR that fascinates and draws us to it in a way that fiction, while entertaining and enlightening, does not?

Why do we love reading such intimate, first-person stories of challenge, struggle, and triumph? Is it, as some would claim, a tabloid-style voyeuristic curiosity? Is is that we want to live others’ lives vicariously? Perhaps there’s some truth to that — we humans are terribly curious creatures, after all, endlessly fascinated by tragedy and death. This is the stuff that sells newspapers. But I think it’s more than that.

We are engaged in a constant search for meaning, for our own lives as well as in our families, communities, and cultures.

We are inspired by others’ stories of loss and recovery. Memoirs such as A Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion and A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates chronicle journeys of grief and survival through illness and the loss of those who mean the most to us. Through memoirs like these, we gain comfort and the courage to survive our own life journeys of loss and grief. 

We gain insight into cultures and lifestyles we wouldn’t otherwise encounter. The huge success of Noah Trevor’s, Born a Crime, and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance attest to our fascination with cultures and subcultures. If you identify as white, a memoir like Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates help you understand what it’s like to be black in America. And if you identify as black, you may feel that Coates’s portrayal sheds some light on your own life experiences.

Or maybe we’re interested in the lives of the rich and famous — actors or politicians. So we gravitate toward memoirs by Carrie Fisher, Lauren Graham, Barack Obama, or Al Franken. 

Memoirs help us remember we are not alone. That other people grew up with dark family secrets. And we gain courage through the authors’ courage to confront those secrets and overcome shame in order to find healing and break destructive generational cycles. For this, we read memoirs such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, about living in a uniquely dysfunctional family; Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller about the shame of growing up in a family of hoarders, and Etched in Sand, Regina Calcaterra’s story of rising above a life of abuse and homelessness.

We recognize something of ourselves in coming of age struggles and victories — no matter how different their lives are from ours — when we read memoirs like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, or Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.

And we love quests — any kinds of quests: for freedom, for love, even for eating right. I’m thinking of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, Wild by Cheryl Strayed. There are quests for a new kind of spirituality, such as Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd (the subject of our next Read Like a Writer selection.)

And then there are the quirky quests we read for pure fun and entertainment, such as The Know-it-All: One Man’s Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs, or Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States.

Memoir is a unique form — endlessly surprising, tragic, inspiring, funny, insightful, and courageous. True stories that help us understand ourselves, our cultures, and humanity in general. We reach inside each of these stories for a little bit of ourselves and, when we find what we’re looking for, come out more open, educated, curious, comforted, compassionate, motivated, and perhaps a little braver.

Why do you read memoir?

Note: I have read most, but not all, of the memoirs listed in this article. If I haven’t yet read them, they are on my to-read list.


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2 thoughts on “Why We Love Memoir

  • sara etgen-baker

    I read memoir to learn more about how others have lived their unique human experiences. I gain insight and perspective and don’t feel quite so alone. I believe memoir is storytelling at its best…real and personable. I crave authenticity.