Memoirs R Us

American readers seem deeply interested in memoirs this year. I’ve been wondering why.

What books people write, publish, review, buy, share and talk about tend to go in waves. Some years, historical fiction rules; in others, fantasy and other worldliness (think Gone With the Wind and the Harry Potter series as examples). A few years ago biographies were flying off the shelves; last year, anything vampire sold. All it takes is one, big, humongous publishing success and it seems like we are all off to the races.

I read a lot of book reviews, in search of the next great American novel. And while the great novel is still being written, more memoirs are available than ever. Of particular note are two of the more famous memoirists: James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club; Cherry; and now, Lit). You may remember that a minor brouhaha erupted after Frey admitted to fictionalizing some of his drug addiction and treatment story; Oprah, who had chosen the book for her Book Club brought him onto her show to confront him. While Karr, a brilliant writer and poet, seems to have been spared the public skewering that Frey endured, her 3 volume story of degradation and personal reform seems impossible to fit into one small lifetime. 

Americans are endlessly interested in how other people live their lives. But what seems to have shifted in our culture is that the lives we want to read about are less about strength, courage or righteousness and more about failure and secrecy. Instead of presidents and religious leaders, we buy books about drug addicted professors or single women on a quest for God. We want to peer behind the curtain to reveal the humanness of those around us, and not only confirm our own brokenness, but also heave sighs of relief when our own lives aren’t so dramatically distorted and bent.

It fits with the trends of paparazzi following the famous, the famous repenting on television, and the not so famous watching this all on 24/7 news cycles. It also follows on the decline of the organized Church, where not too long ago the lives of saints, old and new, were held up as models of faithful living.

People are always going to look for help in living their lives, and trying to understand their own through the lens of another is one powerful way to do it. But I wonder: is it helping anyone to lead a better, more satisfying life when all the stories we buy and sell are those of deep failure, relationship pain, and the crawling back toward the shores of self respect? Or does it set us up for lives of lower standards, lives measured against the latest and biggest personal fall?

Among other things, we are what we spend time reading and thinking about. Garbage in, garbage out?  

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