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In Memoirs We Trust

Whether it's from Irish-American high school teachers or vice presidents reporting from underground bunkers, Americans have a taste for others' personal experiences.

This past Sunday, the wildly popular memoirist Frank McCourt died. The popularity of McCourt's most famous book, Angela's Ashes, is based on a combination of strong writing and close-to-the-bone honesty, written in the memoir genre that Americans love to read.

Publishers dole out high advances and readers eat up memoirs by such public figures as Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Dick Cheney recently joined this group when Simon & Schuster reached a $2 million deal with the former vice president to write his life story.

But a memoirist like McCourt falls into a different category under the larger memoir umbrella. Readers turn to the Clinton books to get an intimate glimpse of larger, historical events. But a reader's interest in a writer like McCourt is different.

Readers want a memoirist to be, in some ways, a regular person, someone they recognize, someone similar to them. And McCourt was certainly that. He spent his entire career as a high school teacher in New York City. But readers also want someone whose life is just a little crazier than theirs. Someone who is similar, but ultimately not too similar. Too much similarity doesn't make for good escape reading.

Consider a few early paragraphs from Angela's Ashes:

"When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years."

We all have mixed feelings about our childhoods. But for most of us, it wasn't this bad. And so we read to know just how bad it was for Frank McCourt.

Memoirs are currently in an interesting place in our cultural life. While stories continue to surface of fabrications in books promising the truth, memoirs continue to be published. There is always somebody wanting to confess something about their lives. The New York Times Sunday Magazine just published an excerpt from the restaurant critic Frank Bruni's forthcoming book.

Here is how it begins: "I have neither a therapist's diagnosis nor any scientific literature to support the following claim, and I can't back it up with more than a cursory level of detail. So you're just going to have to go with me on this: I was a baby bulimic."

That's a good enough hook for me.

With McCourt's death, the genre he wrote in is as popular as ever. The explosion of personal blogs might be the clearest indication that our need to read and write public confessions of our traumatic and not so traumatic lives is showing no signs of slowing down.

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