Nine Reasons To Read Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

The more memoirs I read, the more lessons I learn, first about the literary form, second about other people, and third about myself. These benefits intertwine to form one of the best systems of self-development I know. Here are nine benefits, along with a few titles of memoirs that exemplify each one.

Reason #1: The Fascination and Relief of Story Reading

A good memoir offers the same release as any engaging story, allowing me to lose myself in the author’s world… a fine turn of phrase… a fascinating dramatic incident… a character I care about, travelling along an interesting path. All these factors contribute to my satisfaction.

Enough about me by Jancee Dunn: Enters the world of a young celebrity interviewer
The Sound of No Hands Clapping by Toby Young: Shares the world of an ambitious writer
The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: offers wisdom about physical illness
Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum: A runaway teen lives in the shelters of New York city

Reason #2: Inspiration based on life experience and loss

My grandmother used to say: “This too shall pass.” I didn’t understand her platitudes when I was young. They make more sense now in the pages of each memoir, which starts with an author facing a challenge and then proceeds through the journey to a resolution. In every case, life goes on and characters grow.

Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup: After losing a beloved husband, she searches to recover from grief and find the meaning of life and death.
Mothering Mother by Carol O’Dell: a daughter cares for a mother suffering from dementia
Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham: a non-standard childhood with her two uncles
Expecting Adam by Martha Beck: She pays homage to her Down Syndrome baby.
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott; She shares her search for the meaning of life
Shades of Darkness by George Brummell: A black man escapes Jim Crow south by joining the army. His war injuries blind him and he must grow through another round.

Reason #3: Insight into cultural mixing, the melting pot of modernity

In modernity, cultures and races mingle at an ever increasing rate. Now, more than ever, we urgently need to understand each other. Through memoirs I penetrate the veil of the Other, by accompanying them on their journey. I accompanied a multi-racial boy, Barack Obama, who visited ancestors in an African village. I accompanied a girl who grew up in Michigan, Mei Ling Hopgood, when she traveled to Taiwan to visit her birth family. I grew up with an Iranian girl, Firoozeh Dumas, in California, a young Jewish immigrant, Harry Bernstein, in Chicago, and a black man, Henry Louis Gates, in the waning years of Jim Crow south. Memoirs turn the American melting pot into a vibrant, detailed, emotionally challenging and enriching personal experience.

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama: A man of mixed heritage seeks his identity at home and in Africa
Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: An African woman seeks asylum in Holland, and discovers that western culture holds the antidote to the injustice she suffered at home.
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas: An Iranian child grows up trying to adapt to the American culture.

The Dream by Harry Bernstein: A Jewish immigrant arrives in the U.S. melting pot before the depression.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: A Vietnamese American returns to Vietnam to make sense of his roots

Colored People by Henry Louis Gates: A black man in Jim Crow south tries to outgrow the limitations his culture has placed on him.

Reason #4: See deep into another’s point of view, including gender, war, celebrity

In order to live in the world, I need insights into the way other people think and feel. By reading memoirs, I no longer need to guess. Each author tell me themselves.

Athletes
Open by Andre Agassi: A famous tennis player shares his hopes, dreams and fears.

Performers
Enter Talking by Joan Rivers: A Jewish college grad attempts to escape the ordinary success mandated by her parents and enter the magical kingdom of entertainment.

Vinyl Highway: Singing as “Dick and Dee Dee” by Dee Dee Phelps: A young woman is invited into a singing duo and finds herself on television and on tour in the sixties.

Soldiers
Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester: A veteran returns to the scene of his Pacific battles and tries to put his demons to rest.

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah: A Vietnam combat soldier struggles to survive the war with his life and sanity intact. He just barely makes it.

House to House by David Bellavia: A vivid, gut wrenching account of house to house combat in Iraq.

Mental challenges
Look me in the eye by John Robison: A man with an unusual approach to life finds out in middle age that he has been living with undiagnosed Asperger’s

Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison: in the 1980s the author revealed the damaging effects of bipolar disorder, as told from the insider’s point of view.

Down Came the Rain by Brooke Shields: about giving birth and realizing she had  postpartum depression

Girls
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro: a beautiful girl is seduced by power, drugs, and sex and must find her way back.

Name All the Animals by Alison Smith: small town girl must find her sexuality against the pressures of religion and grief.

A Girl Named Zippie by Haven Kimmel: a small town girl, who turns ordinary life into a fascinating journey.

Boys
Father Joe by Tony Hendra: about his fascination with the monastery and his admiration of a mentor.

True Notebooks by Mark Salzman about teaching writing to convicted juvenile offenders.

Townie by Andre Dubus, III about growing up as a fighter, trying to maintain his pride in a world that constantly tried to strip it away.

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly: An American college student moves to a Chinese temple in order to study martial arts.

Illness
Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner: a man suffers from Crohn’s disease and learns about life without food.

Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley: a man suffers polio and then learns to live with it. (Coming of Age in a wheelchair)

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor: a neuroanatomist suffers a massive stroke and during rehabilitation draws conclusions about the right and left halves of the brain.

Spirituality
Devotion by Dani Shapiro: She searches for deeper meaning in spirituality and religion.
Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore: A man trying to immerse himself in Buddhist practices and beliefs.

Fatherhood
The Film Club by David Gilmour: A father agrees to let his son drop out of high school with the proviso that they watch movies together.

Courage to Walk by Robert Waxler: A young man falls under a mysterious illness, and his father writes of the grief and search for courage.

Reason #5: To share their story, authors overcome shame and privacy

Some memories evoke the emotion of shame, which tries to convince us to lock our thoughts away and never reveal them. It requires courage to share such memories with the world. Every time someone achieves that goal, it offers a role model for other aspiring memoir writers. Here are some of the books that in another age would have been kept locked in terrible secrecy.

Lucky by Alice Sebold: A girl is brutally raped in college and must go on a journey of self-discovery, making sense of her life after trauma.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff: A young man grows up with edgy, directionless experimentation.

Ten Points by Bill Strickland  In raising his little girl, the author tries to make peace with the abuse in his own childhood.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: The author falls in love with a man who starts out charming, and the more she commits to him, the more violent and dangerous he becomes.

I Know Horror Father Because I Know You by Sue William Silverman: Sexually abused as a child, she shares a disturbing account of growing up fearing the man responsible for caring for her.

Reason #6: In the River of Culture, Writers and the Writing Life

All memoirs reflect the journey from life to literature, but when memoirs take us inside the writing life, we gain an even deeper appreciation for the written words that form the fabric of our culture. These stories shed light on the nobility and magic of being literate human beings.

On Writing by Stephen King: A famous author shares the story of becoming a writer.
Mentor by Tom Grimes: A student at the Iowa Writers Workshop shares an account of his relationship with the director of the program.

Only as good as your word, advice from my favorite writing mentors by Susan Shapiro: Shapiro tells of her long journey as an aspiring New York writer, by sharing the stories of important influences.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico – Memoir of A Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing by Rick Skwiot: The author leaves his corporate job and moves to Mexico to find himself and his writing voice.

Mentor by Tom Grimes: An aspiring author enters Iowa Writers Workshop and practically worships at the altar of the craft.

Reason #7 Learn about the development of identity

Until I started reading memoirs, I thought childhood development was something I would only read about in textbooks. Now, in Coming of Age memoirs, I accompany people on the journey from infant to fully formed adult. Along the way are the strange trials and learning during the adolescent years when we must construct our notions of self. But Coming of Age doesn’t always follow a straight path, or necessarily finish by the age of twenty. Many authors tell of their ongoing effort to become themselves.

Coming of Age
Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls: Tales of chaotic upbringing land on the bestseller lists.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: A boy in Ireland with a drunk father and overwhelmed mother, must figure out how to grow up.

Townie by Andre Dubus III: A boy grows up relying on his fists. As he grows, he becomes curious about his father, a famous story writer, and gradually trades in his gloves for a pen.

Name all the animals by Alison Smith: A girl loses her brother in a tragic accident, and grows up struggling to find herself.

Extended or Late Coming of Age
Accidental Lessons by David Berner: He loses his marriage and career, and becomes a schoolteacher, starting over in his 50s.

Dopefiend by Tim Elhajj: Squandering his teen years in heroin addiction, he finally becomes clean at the age most of us are finished Coming of Age. The memoir is his journey to discover what adult life is all about.

Tis by Frank McCourt: After he arrives in New York, he must invent his own life. Through trial, error, and education, he gradually develops into a fully formed adult.

Life Summary
In many of my memoir workshops, people over 50 try to make sense of the events of their lives. I love this journey of discovery, and at the same time I am aware of the fine line that distinguishes memoir from autobiography. If you attempt to describe your whole life, the result is usually considered less literary, and more historical. However, I have seen evidence that with a sincere, artistic attempt to find the story, such writers can develop a compelling work. And how else will we ever learn to understand the entire journey, unless we write about it? For now, most of the people who achieve bookstore success with this type of memoir are already famous. In the future, I believe ordinary people will achieve success with this form.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill: An editor in a venerable publishing house in England writes about the journey of life.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda: His journey through life recounts formative experiences that help us appreciate the impact of extended periods of time.

Golden Willow by Harry Bernstein: After the age of 95, when his acclaimed memoir Invisible Wall was published, Bernstein continues to write two more memoirs. The third one, Golden Willow is written from the point of view of a man in his 90s, looking back on the sweep of life experience.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Dafoe is a fake autobiography written in 1721 about a woman who struggles to find her way, and often loses it, in her journey through life. Considering that it has survived as a classic for almost 300 years suggests that a lifetime can make good reading, when portrayed with expert storytelling skills.

Reason #8 Extend my vision to other parts of the world

At every stage of my life I have been influenced by wars and global politics. In high school, I was traumatized by repercussions of the Holocaust. In college, I was lost in the upheaval of the Vietnam War. In recent years, the power struggles of the mid-east have taken center stage. Over the years, I’ve been disturbed and intrigued by developments in India, Asia, and Africa. Now memoir writers take me on intimate tours of those conflagrations and forces of history.

Man on Mao’s Right by Ji Chaozhu: History of China during the reign of Chairman Mao.

Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson: Glimpse of the back country of Mongolia

House on Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper: Growing up privileged in Liberia

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Asar Nafisi: an English literature teacher faces danger in post-revolutionary Iran.

Vietnam: Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham: After Coming of Age in America, Pham quits his job and goes on a bicycle tour through Vietnam to discover his roots.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba, an African boy falls in life with practical gadgets and manufactures a windmill to generate electricity.

Reason #9 Learn about people attempting to relate to each other

When I was young, romantic love and lust were so tangled I had no idea how to tell one from the other. Over the years, I came to believe that the principle difference between the two comes to light in the commitment of a mutually respectful partnership. This simple insight took years of trial and error, but now that I read memoirs, I can speed up the movie. Memoirs tell of the emotional complexity of love, babies, sex, extended families, careers, and all the other things that go into a couple’s life.

Japan Took the JAP Out of Me by Lisa Cook Fineberg: a newlywed woman moves with her husband to Japan and in this foreign culture must also discover herself within the relationship.

Digging Deep by Boyd Lemon: In this retrospective attempt to understand his three failed marriages, Lemon completely exposes his own limitations. While it was happening he assumed it was all their fault, but now looking, he realizes his only contribution to the relationship was money.

Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story, by Judith Dickerman-Nelson, she falls in love and becomes pregnant at the age of 16, and has much to figure out about love, social approval, commitment, and becoming a couple.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman: a woman attempts to make a marriage work within the many rules and constraints of her Hasidic culture.

Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner: Her young love goes terribly wrong when she discovers her new husband is an abuser.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener: Tells the whole journey of love, marriage, and then surviving his illness and death when he is struck with cancer.

(This is a complete rewrite of an article published January 4, 2008 called Eight Reasons to Read Memoirs by Jerry Waxler)

Notes

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

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10 thoughts on “Nine Reasons To Read Memoirs

  1. I couldn’t have found this post at a better time! I’ve been wanting to read some great memoirs because, eventually, I’d love to start life-story writing. Thank you for such great information! I’ll be back again . . .

  2. I’m about halfway through Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik. I’ve been reading memoirs as I write mine to learn how others have decided to tell their stories, especially the mundane.

    In Paris, Gopnik tells about the period of time he lived in the city with his wife and small child and I tell you, I have doubled over laughing at some of his descriptions. I feel a strong connection because of my own experiences living in a country not my own, and it comforts me to know others have thought the same things, and made the same observations, as me.

  3. Hi Jenn, I’m so glad you are thinking ahead about life-story writing. There is so much to organize and understand. Sometimes I think figuring out a memoir is as big a project as figuring out a life.

    Thanks for the tip, Melanie. I’ll put Paris to the Moon on my list. Yes, it’s amazing how we all walk around in our own worlds, but there’s a whole story in there. It’s much more fun when we can share it. And thanks for slipping in a snip about yourself…

    Jerry

  4. I’ve recently began reading memoirs, as part of my English College course, and I really enjoyed them. I’ve read Black, White and Jewish by Rebecca Walker, and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. Beah’s memoir, exposed his memories as boy soldier, which changed my perspective of life.

  5. Maybe your next post should be about the value of writing your own thoughts about each book you read, whether as a formal review or casual notes. I have not read as many memoirs as you or Shirley Showalter, but I’ve read a pile. The only ones I clearly remember are the ones I reviewed or at least made notes on. What I wouldn’t give for the “class notes” you have to refer back to!

  6. Yes!! I love doing writing reviews because it forces me to drink deep from each one, and I actually feel a loss if I finish a memoir and don’t take the time to write about it. Taken together, memoirs are like an encyclopedia of human nature.

  7. Hi Jerry,

    What a great post. I hope many readers will find it helpful to have you as their knowledgeable guide. You have inspired me to do something similar with the many reviews I have on my own site. Thanks for the inspiration on both
    counts!

    Shirley

  8. Hi Shirley, Thanks so much for your kind words and for discovering the joys of reflecting on memoirs. The more you think about them, the deeper the lessons. Jerry

  9. You’ve outlined such compelling reasons to read memoir, my favorite genre! And the book lists, among my favorites too! Well done. I’ll be back. -Renee

  10. Thank you for this wonderful resource.
    I just ordered your book, so I can finish my Memoir Book. I will retun soon.

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