[This is a multi-part series.]
For bibliophiles, the books we love, the reasons we love them, and how they impact our lives are all matters of highly personal and subjective preferences. Just take this recent controversy of Paul Auster talking about “boy writers” — the authors whose works he has loved and been inspired by. [An aside: The qualities and attributes that he describes these particular writers and their works as having are not, of course, exclusive to the male gender, so his choice of the label of “boy writers” has confused and annoyed many authors and readers but we won’t go into that at this time.]
Still, the traditional bibliomemoir genre has been undergoing some kind of revival lately. During this month alone, at least three such books — Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch; Wendy Lesser’s ‘Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books; and Samantha Ellis’ How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much — have been released. All were greeted with much critical acclaim and reader fanfare. [No, this genre is not dominated by women as this shortlist might imply; we’ll get to a wider, more representative sampling in Parts 2-5.]
Reviewing Mead’s book favorably in the New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates gave a rather perfect definition of a bibliomemoir, also explaining the mastery of multiple literary genres and stylistic nuances required:
Rarely attempted, and still more rarely successful, is the bibliomemoir — a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography. The most engaging bibliomemoirs establish the writer’s voice in counterpoint to the subject, with something more than adulation or explication at stake.
As daunting as that may sound, it has clearly not deterred those bibliophiles who are driven to write book-length explorations of the book(s) they consider personally important. Sometimes, it is a way of continuing the pleasurable interaction with or response to the book(s) after reading — that wonderful, intimate communion or exploration that they cannot bear to end and cannot keep to themselves. And, increasingly, it helps make a virtue of their reading “vices” — or, in more practical parlance, monetize a pastime or related vocation.
But, even more than the above, there are two deeper and more irresistible attractions that draw a bibliophile into wanting to write a bibliomemoir.
Firstly, consider that, for many bibliophiles, their love-hate relationships with particular books they’ve read, inhabited, experienced tend to be rather complex. In The Faith of a Writer, Joyce Carol Oates described it thus:
In this, the art of reading hardly differs from the art of writing, in that its most intense pleasures and pains must remain private, and cannot be communicated to others. Our secret affinities remain secret even to ourselves [. . .] We fall in love with certain works of art as we fall in love with certain individuals, for no very clear motive.
The compulsion to express that intense, mysterious, and existential experience of certain books in words is no different from, say, a painter’s compulsion to capture a particularly-moving scene and express/interpret it on canvas.
Secondly, for these bibliomemoirists, the books they love are not an alternative to life. Rather, such books, by virtue of opening up the real world in new and different ways, are significant life events and milestones in themselves. Or, to paraphrase the writer Anne Fadiman, their most-loved books are really the key chapters of their lives. So, their bibliomemoirs are the articulation and interpretation of the shapes their lives have taken as a direct result of certain loved books, not merely as seen through the prisms of those books.
Not surprisingly, the majority of bibliomemoirists are from literary fields — writers, academics, critics, editors, publishers, and that dying breed of booksellers — people who have already, in some way or another, dedicated their lives to literature. While people from other professions — say, scientists and artists — have also written about how literature has influenced them in their chosen vocation or art, they have done so in the form of singular references, footnotes or chapters within their larger memoirs or autobiographies. Still, regardless of where the compulsion comes from, there are at least four specific challenges that a bibliomemoirist today needs to deal with.
Firstly, it is extremely difficult to pull off what Oates wrote in her definition: balancing criticism, biography, and autobiography in just the right proportions, knowing when and how much of each form will work, and managing the frequent narrative transitions smoothly — all the while, also establishing an authentic and credible voice that goes beyond mere adulation or explication and adds something new and unique to the overall and ongoing meta-narrative about the subject(s). Accessing and sharing a deeper level of self-insight with an appropriate level of detachment, so that a space is created for the reader’s imagination and emotions to engage, is tricky enough with any written work, but even more so with this particular genre.
Secondly, one might argue whether we need this particular hybrid genre at all when there are already many well-written volumes of literary criticism by authors who are, generally, authorities on the book(s) they write about. It is worth questioning whether our appreciation and understanding of literary works is better-enabled by works that are more “biblio” and less “memoir” — that is, without the adulteration created by messy autobiographical details of the author’s life. There is a case here, I agree, when we continue to get variable quality in this genre — narratives that are self-absorbed, uninteresting accounts, and/or just badly-written. The many problematic aspects of the memoir genre have been explored by Ben Yagoda in Memoir: A History. For bibliomemoirs, an additional and, indeed, common pitfall is where the author does not present new, original insights, but simply channels the messages from his or her subject(s). To be fair, though, as Philip Lopate writes in To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Non-fiction in defense of memoirs overall:
… egotism, stylistic mediocrity and self-serving opportunism are just as prevalent in fiction, poetry and all other genres of written expression.
So a bibliomemoir that manages to rise above these particular hurdles afflicting books of every genre and give us both a compelling life and subject(s) is certainly worth our consideration.
The third major challenge is that the primary subject matter of a bibliomemoir is books. So, already, there is competition with a loyal reader’s own imagination and intellect, particularly if the book(s) in question happen to be favorite(s). For such a reader, his/her experience of such a book is a unique, individualistic co-creation with the author and, therefore, always more interesting than someone else’s rendition of theirs, no matter how flashily, cleverly, or breathtakingly presented. This is, of course, why, for such readers, movies are never as good as the favorite books they’re based on — such books have long become part of their identities and are capable of invoking sense-memories for them like nothing else.
The final challenge is the most pernicious of all: the ever-growing population of bookish blogs and e-zines over the last couple of decades. The traditional bibliomemoir faces tough competition from real-time, crowd-sourced, social, and unending bibliomemoirs all over the internet. So, again, it would be fair to question the need for the traditional bibliomemoir in our times.
To address this, let’s begin with the common consensus that there are as many poorly-written bookish blogs/sites out there as good ones and that, in general, the blogs/sites that focus on click-bait articles, poorly-compiled listicles, and biblio-fetish pandering are the most popular. Given the latter and the vast echo chambers of social media, it is fair to say that there is a definite erosion (lack, even) of meaningful communal discourse about the place, necessity, and impact of literature in our lives — one that goes beyond a superficial, aesthetic sensibility for and poorly-articulated response to literature and manages to transcend what is mostly unoriginal and click-bait-driven “content”.
Given all of this, surely, the well-written book-length chronicles of the adventures of a discerning, close reader’s mind can provide a certain level of focus, direction, mindfulness, and appreciation of literature. It can also open new paths of accessibility to literature that might have grown obscure with time or unappreciated due to getting buried in the noise. So, yes, the traditional bibliomemoir can address an ever-growing gap in our collective literary culture even if it may not do so entirely to our individual satisfaction.
So one cannot help but admire these authors who have the patience, fortitude, and spirit to write earnestly, extensively, and candidly about how specific books have defined their very existence, whether their thoughts and ideas add value to the overall experience of those books for future readers or not.
Yet, let’s not ignore some of the justifiable charges of egregiousness that have been made against this genre: how they often degenerate into jeremiads of “how we read now” (as my rhetoric has almost done in trying to make my case above); self-indulgence over an indulgence of the targeted reader; cloying narcissism, sycophantic reverence; literary evangelism; pandering to generalities; confirming or reinforcing an accepted version of the book(s) and/or the world; and so on.
Now might be a good time for a personal confession. Despite the case for traditional bibliomemoirs that I have tried to make above, it has been nearly a decade since I read one. My appetite waned because of, mostly, a limited amount of reading time, which I dedicate to reading literature rather than reading about someone else’s love for it. But it is also because the genre seems to have evolved into at least four sub-genres or categories. And, while each of these has its separate attributes, flaws, and merits, my cognitive laziness (in which, I think, I am not alone) has caused me to lump them all together and be somewhat dismissive of the entire genre. Further, I think that the younger, impressionable me consumed such fare more easily than the older, cynical me has been willing to stomach.
So, as a way to shake myself out of that cognitive laziness and cynicism, I began a personal survey of the bibliomemoirs on my shelves and to-read wishlist as well as some of the popular and critically-acclaimed ones out there. I focused on the ones published 1990-onwards. This recency bias was intentional as most of my bibliomemoir-ish books are much older and I was curious about what I’ve been missing since the 90s.
In Parts 2-5, you will find micro-reviews of a sampling of bibliomemoirs from 1990-onwards. In the meantime, let me leave you with the sub-genres or categories I used as I compiled my sample list.
A. The Objective-driven Bibliomemoir: Books in this category are focused on reading and exploring particular book(s) or author(s) by design, sharing how-to-read and how-to-live approaches, etc. Often, there is a time constraint for the reading projects. Ben Yagoda, in his Memoir: A History, refers to these, generally, as “shtick lit”: books perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it.
B. The Story-driven Bibliomemoir: This type includes a specific story that unfolds even as we learn about the author’s reading life. The story is usually set in a larger historical/cultural/social context — personal or collective — with a strong narrative structure. Story, for this purpose, is defined as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and an end.
C. The Re-purposed Essay Collection as Bibliomemoir: These are previously-published essays, lectures, reflections, or anthologies edited and packaged together as a new book. Mostly, they are like collectibles for loyal, longtime readers as well as an attempt to reach a newer audience through some clever re-packaging and re-positioning.
D. The Catch-all Bibliomemoir: This is the all-inclusive kind where the author relates his/her life and the books that influenced it, but not necessarily with any particular purpose other than to relate a coming-of-age, personal journey or retrospective. On the one hand, these books don’t aim to inform or educate necessarily. Rather, they focus on giving first-hand witness accounts. On the other, more often than not, these veer into over-sharing or full-on confessional mode — for which, of course, there is a healthy market.