Someone once told me they love memoirs because the lives of real people make the best stories. Like fantasy, they can transport us into other worlds, yet those worlds have been experienced by a real person. In memoirs, we can discover truths about ourselves, or see a new world through the eyes of someone else.
Memoirs are some of my favorite books because they can be so transformative. Memoirs have the power to reveal truth, inspire action, and plant hope. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey is one of those memoirs. It tells the story of the author's painful experience with losing her mother. Trethewey describes her story this way:
“In the narrative of my life, which is the look backward rather than forward into the unknown and unstoried future, I emerged from the pool as from a baptismal font—changed, reborn—as if I had been shown what would be my calling even then. This is how the past fits into the narrative of our lives, gives meaning and purpose. Even my mother’s death is redeemed in the story of my calling, made meaningful rather than merely senseless. It is the story I tell myself to survive.”
Another noteworthy memoir is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which describes the painful yet meaningful time leading up to Kalanithi's death from stage IV cancer. Kalanithi wrote in between harrowing treatments and exhaustion, and his story was published posthumously by his wife, Lucy. Kalanithi writes,
“There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.”
Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term "mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors" to describe how books give readers opportunities to see themselves in the story, see another person's story, and/or enter into that person's story. I have experienced this in unique and meaningful ways reading memoirs.
I think we pick up books because in some magical, intangible way they offer respite in new worlds. We can then go home to our personal experience with a new perspective and maybe even some hope. When we do this with memoirs, it feels like there is another traveler with us on the journey.