Bibliomemoirs: Four recommended memoirs about books and reading
Defined by Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times in 2014 as ‘a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate tone of an autobiography’, the bibliomemoir offers unique and personal insights into people’s relationships to their books.
Hawthorn bookseller Mike Shuttleworth rounds up some of his favourites.
Books That Saved My Life: Reading for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure by Michael McGirr
Writer, teacher and book reviewer Michael McGirr is phenomenally well-read, and he puts those years of experience to very fine service in this richly furnished memoir. Prepare for personal encounters with War and Peace, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, the poetry of John Shaw Neilson, Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling and much more besides.
McGirr takes each of these works (and numerous others) down from the shelves, musing on the moments in his life where these books revealed themselves. In doing he reveals things about his – and perhaps the reader’s – own life, too.
In Books That Saved My Life, McGirr will never, ever tell you what you should read. But that doesn’t mean you won’t come away from this marvelous memoir without a list of books you will want to read, or read again, with fresh eyes.
The Book That Made Me: A Collection of 32 Personal Stories edited by Judith Ridge
As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. Teacher, academic and literature activist Judith Ridge eloquently proves the adage with this collection of personal recollections by a who’s who of writers for teenagers and children.
Shaun Tan recounts an episode when his mother brought him a book from the library – a seemingly innocent book called Animal Farm. To the young Shaun, it proved far stranger and deeper than anything the child had imagined before.
The late English writer Mal Peet describes the boredom-smashing joy of discovering comics and how they paved the way for a working class boy to get into university. Others writers and illustrators who contribute to this anthology include Sue Lawson, Felicity Castagna, Benjamin Law, Cath Crowley, Kate Constable, James Roy, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Alison Croggon, Will Kostakis, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Markus Zusak and Jaclyn Moriarty.
The strength of this collection is best encapsulated in the words of Australia’s finest writer for young people, Ursula Dubosarsky: ‘Words and pictures — the dream revealing — that’s why some children never stop reading’.
Determined to tackle 10 books he has pretended to have already read, English writer and editor Andy Miller sits down to his task. Miller’s ‘List of Betterment’ includes The Master and Margarita, Middlemarch, The Communist Manifesto, A Confederacy of Dunces, and – why not? – Moby Dick. He then gets his tail up and powers on to read 40 more in the year, de-cluttering his day to give more time to reading.
The result is The Year of Reading Dangerously, which freely tumbles literature with popular culture. The Kinks, Krautrock and show tunes rub shoulders with fiction, classics and a couple of politics and philosophy titles. His riff on the similarities between Moby Dick and The Da Vinci Code is both informative and hilarious. Throughout it all, Miller explains that ‘the List of Betterment is a diary, not a manifesto … neither a prescription nor a set of numbered instructions’.
Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan
Lucky are those who begin their lives with books. Lucy Mangan was one such soul, and in Bookworm, she takes us back to the first, fierce passions of the child reader. Her book does something else too. Into her memoir of a staunch, determined introvert, Mangan weaves a history of children’s book publishing, the evolution of picture books and reflects on how children’s literature has responded (or not) to a century of cultural change. It’s not just the books themselves, but how we read them changes too. How might the idyllic charm of Milly-Molly-Mandy, or the evident cruelties in some of Roald Dahl’s books strike a child today, she ponders?
Prepare to encounter enduring favourites: books by Frances Hodgson Burnett, John Burningham, E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Judy Blume and much more besides. And there is also space given to lesser -known books and writers. Highly recommended for bookworms and the parents of bookworms too.