[This is a multi-part series.]
In Part 1, we explored the whys and wherefores of bibliomemoirs, the challenges with writing them and how there might be a respected place for this sub-genre in the literary canon.
In Part 2, we considered a sample list of bibliomemoirs that are “objective-driven”: focused more on specific goals or authors or genres by design, how-to-read or how-to-live approaches and so on.
Yet, there are many readers who want more from a bibliomemoir. They also want to be entertained with a complete story rather than a collection of vignettes. This brings us to our second category of bibliomemoirs.
Before we dive in, let me add a personal note. I was surprised to not find many more books in this particular category as it is my favorite. And, seeing how I keep discovering more books to add to the first category of “objective-driven” bibliomemoirs, I wondered why that has proved to be a more popular trend. Likely, this is because, while the latter type targets specific kinds of readers better and makes marketing easier, it also allows for a broader range of tastes — a publisher’s ideal. On the other hand, the books in this particular list below become too specific — the stories/narratives can be fitted almost into novel genres. So, naturally, they narrow the field of readers somewhat. This is my non-expert opinion but I do hope to reach out to a couple of publishers and see if they’d be willing to shed some light.
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.
As mentioned earlier, the sample list below is chronological and, by no means, exhaustive. The books are, mostly, from my bookshelves or to-read lists.
1) The Yellow-lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History by Lewis Buzbee (2006) — Written at a time when many bookstores were succumbing to either mega-stores or online retail, this is a delightful little book about a bookseller’s love and passion for books and the book business. As a writer and a teacher of creative writing, Buzbee weaves together a lot of terrific elements in this narrative. We get a history of bookselling and publishing from the ancient library in Alexandria to today’s bookstores of every stripe. Along the way, we get anecdotes and tidbits of the books that Buzbee has loved.
It’s a small book and hardly the “history lesson” as some reviews have described it. If you’re already a bibliophile, much of the historical detail here will not be new. Enjoy this book for the charming way it presents the story of how cultures through the ages have regarded literature, books, and reading. Of course, I have a special spot for this book because, when I discovered it, I had moved to California and was considering opening a bookstore of my own. While the latter did not happen, I was able to live vicariously through Buzbee’s world — a wonderful journey.
2) Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama. and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore by Suzanne Strempek Shea (2004) — In the early-2000s, Shea was recovering from radiation therapy and agreed to help a friend out in her bookstore in MA. This book is a result of that experience, but, again, much more. Also a writer and writing teacher, Shea threads a collection of anecdotes, conversations, vignettes, and wry observations into an enjoyable narrative as she explores both her and our culture’s relationships with books — whether we’re buying, selling, reading, recommending or giving them away.
Despite the after-effects of cancer therapy, she gives us a voice that is upbeat, funny, and sharply observant of the entire world around her — whether it is the idiosyncrasies of the book retail trade, or how people behaved in the aftermath of 9/11, or her childhood memories of bookmobiles and particularly-loved books. There are also tales of other bookstores, which she visited as an author for signings and readings.
I suppose one could say that the larger story here is of how the world of books has sustained both her life and career. Somehow, that seems reductive as a description for a book that will appeal to many readers for many different reasons.
3) An Open Book: Chapters from a Reader’s Life by Michael Dirda (2004) — Dirda is probably the most-repeated author on my entire list — not just because he happens to be prolific in this genre but also because he is a terrific writer. This particular book is just such a treasure. We get Dirda’s boyhood days in working-class Ohio, surrounded by a very interesting group of family members and friends. Then, we also get the glorious host of authors and bookish characters that fueled his imagination growing up in that world. And they’re a mixed bag — from Green Lantern to Proust.
Yes, it is written in a deeply-nostalgic vein for that small-town America I’ve only seen in movies and read in books. But, with his journalistic skills and his literary approach, Dirda’s beautifully-detailed narrative allows us, as readers, to fully-inhabit that world. Just don’t go expecting to learn more about the many books and characters he presents to us — this is not that kind of book. It’s a story of a child growing up by engaging with his world through literature, quite simply. [Note: The hardcover version is titled An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland.]
4) Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (2003) — During the late 1990s, Nafisi, an Iranian university professor at the time, gathered a handful of former students in her home weekly and they read Western literature, which was forbidden by law. As they read various classics — Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller, Lolita — they also share details about their difficult lives and the oppressive political regime. There are Nafisi’s own memories of growing up in a conflict-ridden country and the history of the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war as seen through the eyes of women — all narrated in clear, earnest prose that stays with us long after we’ve finished reading.
The most fascinating parts are the discussions between the women, both about the books and their lives, because their (hitherto mostly unvoiced) opinions grow bolder and more interesting as the narrative progresses. Whether they’re relating to the stories and characters or not, their uniquely and deeply personal interpretations, in the context of their own social histories and cultural traditions, are eye-opening for those of us not familiar with how totalitarian regimes, particularly Iran then, operate. This book should be on every bibliophile’s reading list because it shows us the power of stories to transcend cultural boundaries and to ignite minds. I recommend going in with some knowledge of the referenced books, which are provided in a handy reference list at the end.
5) Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore by Lawrence Goldstone and Nancy Goldstone (1999) — There are a lot of books about book-collecting, whether for business or pleasure. I have included one such book on the previous list (see #13 by Rick Gekoski.) My criteria for including any such books which are more about bibliophilia is that there should be both memoir and literary criticism components included. Otherwise, to me, the book falls into the “book fetish” genre, which I am not a fan of for various reasons we don’t need to go into at this time. The reason this particular book is on this list rather than on the previous one, along with the Gekoski, is that this is also a charming travel/adventure story and the story of an evolving marriage. And, while the literary criticism isn’t quite as academic as, say, #4 above, it is sufficient.
The Goldstones got into book-collecting rather by accident. They had left their Wall Street jobs to write in The Berkshires and found themselves dabbling initially in the rare books world as they looked for gifts to give to each other. This soon grew into a passion and they sunk deeper into this esoteric world of book-collecting, traveling far and wide to find rare books. They first wrote about their book and travel adventures in Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World, the prequel to this one. I chose this second one for the list because it includes more literary details about the books themselves than the first one.
Even if you’re not into rare book collecting, this will prove to be a fun read as the Goldstones have a dry sense of humor and an interesting perspective on pretty much everything they encounter.
Honorary Mentions: As mentioned earlier, this particular survey of bibliomemoirs has been centered on books published from 1990-onwards. So, naturally, many older favorites did not make the cut even though they are timeless in their appeal to bibliophiles everywhere. For example, Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, which was a book of letters that told the story about an American writer (Hanff) and how she became friends with a British bookshop owner (Frank Doel) who was her supplier of classics for many, many years. The sequel, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, told the story of her visit to England to finally meet the various people she’d come to know through Dole, who had, by then, passed away, sadly. There’s also Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, which covers the two most important early 20th-century decades of literary Paris when everyone from James Joyce to Hemingway found their way to the famous Parisian bookstore.
In Part 4, we will continue with another list from the third category of bibliomemoirs. Until then.