bibliomemoirs

The Books We Read, The Lives We Lead (Bibliomemoirs, Part 5)

[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 the 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.

In Part 3, we looked at bibliomemoirs that are more “story-driven”: usually set in larger historical/cultural/social contexts — personal or collective — with strong narrative structures.

In Part 4, we looked at bibliomemoirs that are re-purposed collections of articles or essays but still include all 3 key elements: literary criticism, biography and autobiography.

Now, we head into the final category or type of bibliomemoirs. To be candid, this list, as the category title suggests, is a “catch-all”. If a bibliomemoir did not fit neatly into the previous 3 types, it has been added here.

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 a first-hand witness account. 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.


1) The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life by John Carey (2014) – This book has received mixed reviews. But then, Carey has long been a controversial and provocative figure in literary circles as an academic, scholar and critic for his books on ‘Intellectuals and the Masses‘ and ‘What Good Are the Arts?‘. The book covers Carey’s life from a wartime childhood to study with the likes of Tolkien at Oxford (with other writers/poets who would go on to become famous too) to his own storied professorship, including his unapologetic socialism and anti-elitism. Along the way, Carey gives us these stunning mini-essays and profiles on great authors and poets. And, though he gets opinionated and doesn’t hesitate to trot out his favorite hobbyhorses, it doesn’t get tiring because, after all, this is still the output of a singular, insightful mind. Like several of the bibliomemoirists referenced in this series, he also expresses his dilemma of living a life through books and feeling guilty about not being out there in the “real world” doing things. This, perhaps, is brave of him because of his profession. In the end, this is an entertaining account told with clever and elegant prose by a man who is well-aware of his reputation.


2) Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser (2014) – Opinions about this book, I find, are divided. Some readers have gone to it expecting to find a more personal account, as the title might lead one to believe, but found it to be more of a literary study. Others, who know of Lesser’s background as a literary critic and editor/founder of a literary magazine, ‘The Threepenny Review‘, have gone to it to find more of her in-depth literary studies but found it to be a more broader and meandering account of the books she has enjoyed and why. The question that Lesser is really trying to answer, as she says in her book, is not so much why she reads literature but what she gets out of it. And, of course, the answers to both questions are going to vary from person to person. As Lesser explores novels, poems, plays, essays and short stories, she admits that her aim is not to communicate any essential facts or topics but to invoke a conversation with the reader. And so, whether you agree or disagree with her points of view, you are bound to find plenty to respond to through the various chapters based on specific literary devices. A good amount of the literature referenced is from the Western Canon and there’s a top 100 list at the end of the book too. It’s the kind of book you might seek out if you’re a fan of Lesser’s writing, I think. But, otherwise, I’m not sure yet, having flipped through it quickly, of a more enduring appeal.


3) How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields (2013) – Shields is a rather controversial, opinionated author and has written many bestselling books. I had read his interestingly odd ‘Reality Hunger‘ before I came to this one. And, this book got quite a few rave reviews when it came out. It is a bit too intimate for my tastes and I found myself disagreeing with a lot of what he said (as I did with the other book I’d read). That said, he’s honest about what he looks for in literature, why he needs to identify with authors to enjoy their works and the place of literature in his and our lives today and where he thinks it is headed. As with #1, fans of Shields’ writing will enjoy this book as it is filled with his trademark quirkiness and self-indulgence. Still, he’s got a way with words, of course, and that, if nothing else, will keep you turning the pages. I did find his staunch defense of certain lesser-known books commendable. And, his provocative writing style definitely raises many questions and ideas to ponder further. The authorial persona that Shields projects through this book — that of the tortured, fierce intellectual — is likely not going to appeal to everyone, of course. So, if we follow his own precept of identifying with the author of a work to be able to truly enjoy it, that does become a rather tricky endeavor here. Still, for the record, while I don’t subscribe to that school of thought, I did find it difficult to either identify with the author or enjoy the work in itself.

4) Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior (2012) – Written by an academic, this one is a bit different, in that it is overtly also about the integration of faith into one’s reading and intellectual life. Prior has made a strong and somewhat polemical case for reading as a way to “make us more human“, by which she means spiritual. It is important to note that she does not want us to think that reading makes us moral or better human beings — which is another related school of thought. Through the telling of her own life, her struggles with faith and the reading of literary classics and poetry, Prior provides an earnest, insightful and, often, humorous case for books. Each of the book’s chapters is organized around a particular work of literature (all Western Canon), along with personal anecdotes and literary explication. The book doesn’t sound as sharp as some might assume it to be. Certainly, it comes with a healthy dose of literary and spiritual evangelism, so if that’s not your cuppa tea, then I’d move right along.


5) The Books That Mattered: A Reader’s Memoir by Frye Gaillard (2012) – An award-winning journalist, writer and lyricist, Gaillard has typically focused on the history of the Southern US — race, politics, culture — throughout his career. The books that he has enjoyed as a reader throughout his life have, naturally, been those that shed more light on socio-cultural issues. In many ways, this book is entirely different from the one above because Gaillard writes with a natural modesty and gives us almost lyrically-written vignettes of his life growing up in the deep South, surrounded by rich history and the traditions of oral storytelling. Gaillard’s favorite writers and works range from the classical greats to various obscure ones and from novels to poems and songs. And, through it all, he gives us his gentle insights on why they’ve fascinated him and why they’ve continued to endure. Even though he has a specific chapter dedicated to “Southern Voices”, his deep knowledge of literature of the South shines throughout the book across almost all the chapters. A lot of the back-stories behind the works that he presents were pieced together by both research and conversations with other scholars, and the latter are related quite deliciously in places too. What I loved most is how Gaillard’s prose takes us back quite deftly to the times that the works were either created in or based on — so that, if you’re coming upon a book the first time here, you will fall in love with it and if it happens to be one of your favorites, you will fall in love with it all over again.


6) The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma (2011) – While this book started out with a specific objective — that of a father reading to his daughter every night for 100 nights — it went beyond that objective and continued for almost a decade or so till the daughter left for college. Through those years, as they experienced books together each night, both father and daughter also shared, of course, many life experiences that also shaped them and their world views. ince the reading practice started when Ozma was in the 4th grade, there are a lot of children’s books referenced here (the author was named after a couple of them – can you guess?) Her father, Jim Brozina, was an elementary school librarian, so, of course, he believed in the power of reading to children. As the story unfolds here, we also see the evolving father-daughter relationship in light of the many changes in their world — e.g. the mother who leaves, the older sister who isn’t around much either, etc. The book is a fitting tribute to him and the practice itself. If you have kids and are looking to ignite a love of books in them, this book, with its book list at the end, will provide inspiration. For the rest of us, it reiterates what we have always known — books bring people together and enhance our lives in many unimaginably wonderful ways.


7) The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L Ulin (2010) – Like practically all the bibliomemoirists in this series, Ulin grew up framing the world through the books he read. His son, Noah, who’s struggling with ‘The Great Gatsby‘ in high school…. not so much. The book opens with a conversation between them after Noah declares, in that adolescent-knowing way that literature is dead and reading is over — even as they sit in a room filled with thousands of Ulin’s personal books. And, while Ulin acknowledges upfront that literature does not hold the same influence in our internet world today as it once did for his generation and the ones before, this book is, in many ways, a refutation of the so-called and often-called-out “death of literature”.  Ulin is a writer, lecturer, and book critic for the L A Times, This book, in fact, started as an essay for the L A Times and reads like a book-length essay too. He describes how he grew up around books, how they were not so much an escape as a passport to, among many things, other versions of himself and why he continues to read literature. Along the way, he also explores specific bookish milestones in his own life. In discussing the broader issues related to the acts and experiences of reading and writing literature in a world filled with technology-enabled distractions, he doesn’t get dismissive or negative, but there aren’t any truly new observations here. In the end, this is a quick read of a book. If you enjoy Ulin’s L A Times reviews and essays and if you’re looking to add some new names to your To-Read list, definitely check it out.


8) My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (2010) – Most well known for his bestselling novel, ‘The Prince of Tides‘, Pat Conroy has written many books. And, this one is his homage to all the books that made him a lifelong reader and a writer. His lyrical mastery with words is in much evidence here as he tells us of his early reading and those who influenced it — e.g. his mother who tried to educate herself through reading, his English teacher, the school librarian, etc. As with #3 above, the South features prominently. Conroy has, throughout his life, kept notebooks to record his thoughts and ideas — a treasure trove that he draws on here too. There is a tidal wave of emotion here but you can’t help being swept along with it and, yes, enjoying the ride. As he describes the specific literary milestones of his life — the book that made him want to be a writer (‘Gone With the Wind‘), a certain book shop in New York, his first writer’s conference, the Paris sojourn, the encounter with a famous writer, and so on — he draws us readers into reminiscing about our own similar literary milestones and how they altered us without our knowing it at the time, perhaps. This is a quick, easy, enjoyable read, particularly if you’re a fan of Conroy’s works.


9) Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir by Rick Gekoski (2009) – Gekoski is a writer, broadcaster, rare books dealer and former academic. He studied at Oxford and is now a dual citizen of England and the US. The title is from Groucho Marx: “Outside of a Dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Gekoski covers 25 specific books here that have had a lasting influence on him. These range from Dr Seuss to Dr Freud and includes, rather cheekily, one of his own. He has a witty, raconteuring style that grows on you but I know of some readers who took some time getting used to it. As he takes us through each of the 25 books and shares how they’ve shaped his life, he gives us various entertaining anecdotes from his travels and dealings in rare books. There are the few serious moments, like the bit about a mentally-ill friend who goes on to do something heart-breaking. Towards the end, Gekoski muses on whether there is a single theme unifying his choice of life-defining books, even though he eschews theories of all kinds. He suggests that it may have something to do with wanting to understand the nature of love, but, almost immediately, rejects the notion as intellectual and second-hand. The one thing that he is willing to hang his hat on is that certain books shape our lives, they make us who we are.


10) Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry (2008) – Pulitzer-winning author, McMurtry, has been a lifelong man of books. Here, he charts his life in books through the many ways that he has accessed them — whether at his local library, at his university and, eventually, at his own famous bookstore, ‘Booked Up‘. The chapters are short, filled with quick, little anecdotes, observations and the odd musing. The stories also include his scouting of rare / antiquarian books, thousands of which he sold in 2012 to cut back his collection and downsize from 4 buildings to 1. It was a historic auction in terms of attendance, called ‘The Last Book Sale’ — a nod to his ‘The Last Picture Show‘. And, of course, there are a lot of authors and events mentioned, given McMurtry’s long career in the literary and publishing worlds. While there isn’t much literary criticism per se here, what we do get is both a rich history of the book and book selling culture in the US over several decades and a memoir of how books have shaped the life of this reader, writer and bookseller. The writing style and the prose, for McMurtry fans, are his usual, stripped-down version. Still, an honest, touching insider perspective and a joy for McMurtry fans everywhere.


11) Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan (2007) – Corrigan is a book critic and a critic-in-residence and lecturer at Georgetown University. This book includes the books and authors who have shaped her life and, as with almost all the bibliomemoirs on this particular list, runs a wide gamut of genres and eras. Along the way, she explores the lives of her favorite female authors, how women are portrayed in fiction and the pertinence of reading in our lives today. Her scholarly knowledge, facility with language and insightful anecdotes blend together seamlessly to make for an engaging narrative. While I enjoy her book reviews, I haven’t always agreed with them. Similarly, I didn’t find myself agreeing with all her her analyses / ideas here but it wasn’t off-putting in the slightest because of her friendly, witty voice and how she approached her three themes or genres — female extreme adventure stories (by which, she means the interior quests that female protagonists tend to go on rather than physically-adventurous ones), detective stories, and Catholic martyr tales. On the personal front, whether she’s relating vignettes from her days as a graduate student or professor, or her life with her husband and their adoption of a child from China, she gives just enough detail to keep us engaged — without veering into too much revelation. I’ve revisited this book through the years for specific insights, particularly when reading one of her recommended books.


12) How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen (1998) – Quindlen is an award-winning author with 15 books under her belt. This book covers her evolution as both a reader and a writer. And, consequently, her maturation as a woman. It’s a quick, slim read under 100 pages and this is, to be honest, the only reason I picked it up — Quindlen’s “all of life’s experiences are grist for the mill” approach is not one I find enjoyable. So, the good news is that there isn’t too much sharing of personal life here. But, the flip side is that there isn’t much insight or any new ideas related to the books, authors and issues that she raises. Today, likely, this would not be a book but a series of blog posts. The several “Top 10” book lists at the end are, sadly, not that interesting and some are rather arbitrary like “10 of the Books My Exceptionally Well Read Friend Ben Says He’s Taken the Most From”. Almost all the books are from the West and written by white authors. A book for loyal Quindlen readers, no doubt. For the rest of us, it is not a book that will draw us to her other writing necessarily.


13) Ruined By Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1997) – Schwartz is an academic, poet, novelist, literary critic and translator. Like every bibliomemoirist on this list, she explores the books that have influenced her throughout her life and made her the person that she is. As a child prodigy, she began reading at the age of 3. I found this book to be as short and unsatisfying as #9 above. It muses on the usual questions — why do we get addicted to reading, what does reading do to us, how do certain books influence our lives, re-reading, the anxiety of unread books on shelves and so on — but, again, no new insights or ideas. Still, as an ode to the books she has read and loved throughout her life, it is a faithful record. And, it does shed some light on the origins of some of her own writing — at least the themes that have interested her. When the book first came out, it garnered praise from several of Schwartz’ literary friends and colleagues, which leads me to believe that, if you knew her through either her other writing or at some personal level, this book might have been more enjoyable — like reading a letter from a friend, perhaps. If, however, like me, you come cold to this book without knowing much at all about Schwartz, it is not likely to hold a similar attraction.

And, with that, we are done with the sample lists of 48 bibliomemoirs organized into 4 categories. They’ve ranged in length, subject matter and even certain themes. There are many similar books that did not make the cut either because a) I’m just not aware of them or b) they did not include all 3 aspects of literary criticism, biography and autobiography or c) they were published prior to 1990.

A few examples of brilliant bibliomemoirs that I did not include here simply because they were published prior to this 1990 threshold: Coleridge’s supreme ‘Biographia Literaria‘ is dense and daunting but so rewarding; Henry Miller’s ‘The Books in My Life‘ gives us the 100 books that influenced him the most and there are many surprises, given his reputation today; Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory‘ is not exactly a bibliomemoir, but books (read and written) feature so strongly and, oh, those beautiful Nabokovian sentences.

In the final, upcoming Part 6, we’ll close with a summation of what, as readers, we might look for in bibliomemoirs.

In the meantime, if you don’t see a particular bibliomemoir that you’ve come across or enjoyed, please share in the comments.

[Go to: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6]

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