Lifelines%3a+Memoirs+vs.+Biography


By John Augustine

Welcome to Lifelines, the book review series that will ordinarily bring you news on the best in biography and autobiography. I will have one recommendation for you, but today is different. I want to reflect for a few minutes on our whole field of interest, particularly the popularity of memoirs.

Technically, any autobiography and several biographies could be classified as memoirs, but that's not the connotation most people use today, going by the best-seller lists. Popular memoirs usually come in two flavors: the celebrity bio and the record of survival.

I'm not very interested in the biographies of People Magazine people, so I won't feature those here. Never mind the life of the starts—what's their half-life? The glamorous folk are replaced at such a dizzying rate, you'd have a full-time job keeping up with them. That's why there is People Magazine—all the news you need without having to resort to an actual book. Plus, it seems pointless to peruse the full life story of somebody who's 24 years old.

The survivor memoirs feature anonymous people who had something happen to them, usually something awful. Abusive families, drug addiction, kidnapping, fatal diseases—these people are the victims of the modern shipwreck narratives who alone survived to tell the tale. Their life stories are the literary equivalent of reality tv shows.

I dimly remember the progenitor of reality television. It was called Queen for a Day featured three housewife contestants who were all walking disaster areas. Illness, bankruptcy, fire and abandonment. One by one they would take turns confessing the utter failure of their lives, with tears all around. Then the audience would vote their choice for the most pathetic contestant, and she would be queen for the day, given a robe and prizes, like a washing machine. It was all morbidly fascinating when I was ten years old. They never did say how the queen's life went the next day, or the next five years. One fears the washing machine couldn't salvage her.

How different is this scenario from the current reality shows, where ordinary people are humiliated on national television every night? Awash in tears of misery or joy, are these stories supposed to be inspiration? I swear there are more tears than bullets on prime time tv, and that's saying something. How different from these is the survivor memoir?

Instead of these, I'd like to recommend biographies of people whose lives went beyond simple endurance, men and women who accomplished something significant, people you've heard of and might want to know more about. The stories of human achievement are inexhaustible. Our understanding of one person's remarkable contribution furthers our understanding of the development of human history and gives us hope.

One example from my own experience: A few years ago, I pick up David Leavering Lewis's 2 volume biography of W.E.B. Dubois. I'd heard of Dubois, without knowing much about him, but enough to feel pretty ignorant and curious, so I read it. I was rewarded with a compelling portrait of a remarkable man, not to mention Marcus Garvey, Booker Washington, the founding of the NAACP, a huge chapter of American progress I had largely overlooked. I was glad that I'd read it.

The other advantage of these biographies is the quality of the writing. Serious biographers are often very good writers, and serious readers appreciate good prose in whatever book they're reading. The pap served up by celebrities' ghost writers and press agents is so trite, hyped and schmaltzy, its a wonder anybody gets to page 2.

So that's why I won't be recommending memoirs, as people popularly understand them. Fortunately, there's no shortage of well-written biographies about noteworthy people who did something extraordinary with their lives.

David Leavering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography, Holt Paperbacks, first edition edition (August 4, 2009) combines both volumes in one. Lifelines is hosted by John Augustine, long-time English and Literature teacher at Delta College, now Professor Emeritus. Lifelines is a production of Delta College quality Public Radio.

© John Augustine, 2011.