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Monday, December 10, 2018
Reading Other People’s Lives
As years go by, more and more older browsers in my bookshop tell me they love reading biographies. Is it more true of women than men? Maybe so, and probably more men read straight history than women. Across the gender gap, however, it seems that many of us, as we get up in years, turn increasing to nonfiction.
In girlhood, I read nonfiction very sparingly. I found most history and biography written for young people too much like school lessons. What I looked for when reading for pleasure (which I did voraciously) was to be transported to other worlds, to be able to slip out of my own skin and away from my family and to live vicariously a very different life. Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Borrowers — early on, fantasy worked for me better than true-facts kinds of books.
My break-through, the first nonfiction story that succeeded in unlocking another real person’s life was — and the simple title emphasizes my point — The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller. Another girl-child, but with such a different beginning! Almost unimaginable obstacles between that young girl and the larger world! Her curiosity, her frustrations, her hunger, and the unfolding of the world around her, as she explored and discovered it, held my young inquisitive reading self in thrall. Later would come The Diary of Anne Frank, which I read at about the age she had been when writing it.
The magic of a story well told and of a reader entering into that story is that we readers do take on, vicariously, the experiences of a character or narrator while we read. We leave ourselves behind, in one sense. — In another, of course, we remain ourselves and can only “have” the other’s experiences in translation, as interpreted by our own more familiar experiences, experience remaining, always, a subjective, first-person phenomenon, which is why I used those scare quotes around “have” earlier in this sentence. But really, what is it like to be someone else? Don't we all wish we knew?
And so, autobiography and memoir stand out for me against the more objective biographies written by someone other than the person who lived the life that is the subject of the book. The best biographies, of necessity, must be filled with speculation. Even if the subject told the story to the writer, another layer of translation has be added between subject and reader. Writers of memoir and autobiography are translating their lives for us, too — that I admit. Whether years afterward or in daily writing sessions as life is being lived, what is written is a matter of perspective, selection of facts to be reported, varying emphases, and interpretation of the world (including other people) that formed the environment for that life. Die lebenswelt, phenomenologists call it. But I feel closer when the subject is the writer.
And here my own bias deepens: I am generally more interested in writers’ accounts of childhood than in their stories of later life. Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City moves me much more than his later New York Jew, and Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter has for me an immediacy I don’t find in her later autobiographical books. I could go on and on listing examples, but the question is, why would it be? Why do I prefer — and find more interesting — the stories of childhood?
When famous people write autobiographies or memoirs, accounts of their later lives tend to be filled with other famous people, and too often whole pages come across, for me, as tedious name-dropping. Well, aren’t those other people interesting (even fascinating!), also? Perhaps so, but often the mention of them and their intrusion into the story gets in the way of the reading experience I want to be having.
Here we might digress to ask the question I already set up above: What is interesting? Who is interesting?
Well, whatever you take an interest in is, for that very reason, interesting to you. Just so, what I take an interest in is interesting to me. So as I see it, being “interesting” is not a quality of an object or a body of knowledge or any particular field of inquiry or individual human beings. Some people have more obviously exciting lives than others, but what makes the story of a life interesting is not the plot line but how the story is told — and, for me, how much room the memoirist manages to make for me, the reader, to get inside his or her experience.
I’ve never pushed my inquiry further until this morning, but now what I’m thinking is that “how I saw and discovered the world” is the story of every childhood, and for me that story is subject to as many variations as there are human beings in the world, so it can never not interest me, while the story of famous adulthoods, on the other hand, tends more toward “how the world saw me,” a very kettle of literary fish. The childhood story lets me, the reader, inside the writer’s life — we see the world together — while the adult story keeps me at a distance (“Look at me!”), relegating me to spectator status.
Spectator. Audience. There are occasions when that position is both necessary sufficient. Reading history that covers decades or centuries, a reader necessarily views the pageant from a distance. The Frontier in American History does not invite me into any particular individual’s life experience but captivates by its broad sweep and by the development of an argument that engages me as I read. I do not slip into that writer’s experience. That is not the point at all. Instead my relationship is with the writer, not exactly as a partner in conversation, because he is the one onstage, giving a lecture, but I can question and disagree in my mind, as one may press a speaker after a talk in Q&A. If, however, I were reading the story of the author’s life, the life of Frederick Jackson Turner, as told by himself, I suspect I would find my interest lessening as he neared the ripe old age of 30. Just so, when reading Alfred Kazin on literature or Simone de Beauvoir on philosophy, I do not expect to inhabit their skins and lives, only their minds! And that only in a limited sense. But when they are writing of their own lives, I feel closest to them when they were discovering the world rather than being concerned with their own places in it.
As readers, we all have idiosyncratic biases that influence how certain books attract us and hold us through numerous re-readings and how others put us to sleep. What are yours?