Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Things Happen

Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?

— Jill Ker Conway

Memoirs fascinate because the best ones read like novels. We all want our lives to have a through-line, and memoirs provide one. They also confirm how unseemly and accidental our lives are.

Things happen.

Critics dislike memoirs' exhibitionist quality; but not me. I love them.

I find reading a memoir much more rewarding than, say, sitting in a coffee shop and peeping at other people's laptops (the woman beside me is Googling "how to deal with a cheating husband") or eavesdropping on other people's phone calls (the guy behind me is going to quadruple his prices, but not tell customers).

Soldiers', statesmen's and victims' memoirs I could care less for; but artists' memoirs I find irresistible. I recommend those of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Ernest Borgnine, Sammy Davis, Jr., Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Anne Truitt, Carrie Fisher, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Tina Fey and Martin Short.

And then there are the memoirs of artisans: I recommend those of Alfred P. Sloan, Katherine Graham, David Ogilvy, Ed Catmull, Rick Gekoski, Maryalice Huggins, Terry McDonell and James Rebanks.

If you like heady, try writers' memoirs: those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Elie Wiesel, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Herman Wouk, William Styron, Willie Morris, Pete Hamill, Frank McCourt, James Lord, Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Richard Russo, Bill Bryson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King, and Augusten Burroughs.

Novelist Richard Ford has just published a memoir and is completing a book tour (he recommends Frank Conroy's Stop-Time, by the way).

Ford said last week on The PBS News Hour the memoir's purpose is "to remind us that, in a world cloaked in supposition, in opinion, in misdirection, and often in outright untruth, things do actually happen."


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