Monday musings on Australian literature: Bibliomemoirs

Book cover

At the end of my post on Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, I mentioned that Brona (This reading life) had described it as a bibliomemoir, which was a new term for me. As it turns out it is a reasonably new term, full stop. Readings Bookshop says that

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.

This is not to say that the “genre” is new – because it certainly isn’t – but that it now has its own name.

Website/blog Book Riot also wrote about them recently, saying

Most readers love books about books. We also love snooping through other people’s bookshelves for the thrill of the possibility of discovering a whole person in a stack of books that they chose to read. Bibliomemoirs offer both. These books combine the confessional, intimate tone and personal approach of memoirs and autobiography with, well, books, and sometimes literary criticism.

And, apparently, says Kate Flaherty in The Conversation, Gabrielle Carey has, herself, described the genre:

Carey described bibliomemoir as a piece of writing that shows literary criticism is “best written as a personal tale of the encounter between a reader and a writer”.

It’s not surprising, then, that Only happiness here is a good example. In it Gabrielle Carey looks at Elizabeth von Arnim’s life through the prism of her works and draws conclusions about her own life through those same works. In doing so, she also offers literary criticism, through both her own views and those of others on von Arnim’s books.

The first example of this genre that I can remember reading – before it had its name – is non Australian, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books (2003)*. Such an intelligent, moving – and political – book.

For keen readers, the bibliomemoir, when done well, and particularly when written by and/or about favourite writers, can be engaging (if sometimes disheartening!) reading. They can also be enlightening because they explore the way we use books to understand our own lives and/or to understand the lives of others. They are about the way we use books, for example, for solace, for self-education, for the safe exploration of other ideas and feelings.

Readings, in the page linked above, shares a few bibliomemoirs selected by their Hawthorn store bookseller, Mike Shuttleworth. Not all were Australian, but as most of you know by now, these Monday posts are devoted to Australian literature, so my list here includes his two Aussie selections and others selected by me:

  • Debra Adelaide, The innocent reader: Reflections on reading and writing (2019) (on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • Carmel Bird, Telltale: Reading, writing, remembering (to be published July 2022)
  • Ramona Koval, By the book: A reader’s guide to life (2012) (Lisa’s review)
  • Michael McGirr, Books that saved my life: Reading for wisdom, solace and pleasure (2018) (Brona’s review)
  • Judith Ridge (ed.), The book that made me: A collection of 32 personal stories (2016)
  • Jane Sullivan, Storytime: Growing up with books (2019) (Lisa’s review)
  • Brenda Walker, Reading by moonlight: How books saved a life (2010)

Book Riot says, “A bibliomemoir is like an insightful, bookish dinner guest — and a recipe for an exploding TBR”. On the other hand, bibliomemoirist herself, Jane Sullivan, shared a different viewpoint in The Sydney Morning Herald back in 2014. She wrote that British journalist Rachel Cooke, while liking what bibliomemoirs were doing, was also worried. Cooke, wrote, she says:

These books, however endearing, funny and insightful, strike me as just another form of talking about books rather than actually reading them. Go to the text! I want to shout, bossily.

So, with all this in mind, do you like bibliomemoirs? And, if so, care to share any favourites, Aussie or otherwise?

* Coincidentally, while researching this I discover that Nafisi has a new book out this year, Read dangerously: The subversive power of literature in troubled times.

POSTSCRIPT : An interesting, brief discussion of bibliomemoir at Boston Bookfest. Argues that:

Much like microhistory, bibliomemoir upends a specific, traditional cultural structure—in this case the kind of authoritative perspective (rooted in entrenched power structures) that conventional criticism upholds. In this sense, it is an inherently political genre—a liberal or democratic genre.

27 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Bibliomemoirs

  1. This is certainly a genre that I can get onboard with! A few come to mind, although I haven’t read them yet, including two in my TBR stack – Laura Freeman’s A Reading Cure and Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing.
    Coincidentally, I saw this article by Ruth Wilson re-reading Jane Austen in the news today – – her new book is called The Jane Austen Remedy and I think it’s another to add to my reading list.

  2. I do love bibliomemoir, and I’ve read all the ones on your final list, except for the Judith Ridge. My new book Telltale (July 2022) is another example of the genre. I wrote it in 2020 when I was confined to the house for long periods of lockdown, with all the books for company. Bruce Pascoe describes it as
    ‘A book about books that dreams you through a library of life’.

  3. I like reading readers talking about reading – hence blogging – but I don’t think I have or would read a book about it, nor a newspaper – columnists try too hard to be cute.

  4. Thank you for the shout-out Sue, it gave me the opportunity to fix the missing book image in the McGirr post. I have both Brenda Walker & Azar Nafisi’s books on my TBR as well as two books by Jane Gleeson-White – Classics and Australian Classics.
    Which would suggest that I do indeed like this genre 🙂

    Jane Sullivan has a point, but since these books make me want to read most of the books they talk about, I’d say their job is done. They help weed out the few I don’t think would work for me and build up the anticipation faction for the rest.

    Very excited to see the Carmel has a new one coming out this year too.

    • Thanks Brona. I wasn’t sure that Jane Gleeson-White’s books quite in this category. They feel a bit more like lists on a topic rather than having a strong memoir aspect? Geordie Williamson’s The burning library crossed my mind but again I think it is more about promoting specific books than about memoir. It’s probably a fine line.

      And yes re Carmel Bird! I included her in my coming releases for 2022 but we have to be patient!

      • I haven’t read Jane’s classics book yet but the Australian one is mostly lists with some reflections by those who made the lists, now that I reflect!!

        How are the grandies going?

        • Yes that’s what I felt … I’ve dipped into them only.

          Arrived yesterday afternoon and had a quick before bedtime visit. GORGEOUS of course. They moved into their new home 10 days ago so Max happily showed me around. And I had a lovely cuddle with 2-month-old Neve. Thanks for asking!

  5. Hmmm… I’m not a fan. Maybe because I’ve tried to read ones by British authors who have written about books I’ve never read or know about so I can’t identify and lose interest. Maybe I might have more luck with a bibliomemoir written by an Australian? Even so, I’d rather read the actual books rather than a book about someone else reading those books. How very meta this all is! 🤪

    • Fascinating how different we are Kimbofo … but I do agree that reading one which is mostly about books you don’t know could be challenging!if not downright boring. That didn’t seem to be a problem for me with Carey’s though I’ve probably only read about 30% of her books. But I have known and loved her for a long time so that probably helped.

  6. I have read many books that have parts that approximately fit the description, but none I can think of just now that as a whole fit the description. There are essays by Guy Davenport, a chapter of Iris Origo’s memoir Images and Shadows, a chapter of John Lukacs’s memoir Confessions of an Original Sinner, some of Dennis Donoghue’s memoir Warrenpoint. And down on my shelves is a copy of David Denby’s Great Books, which I have not read, but which I believe does fit the description.

  7. Thanks for the links!
    I’ve read Reading by Moonlight too, but it isn’t among my favourites because it’s a hybrid memoir. It’s about the books she read during her treatment for breast cancer, and I felt guilty about not liking it more.
    I think Kim makes a critical point. These books speak to us if we’ve read at least most of them too. Though this is only an impression I’ve gleaned from my own reading, I find that the ones I like are written by people from my own generation, when, by and large, we all read the same books. The same children’s books, and then the same C19th classics, and then the same books that our parents as young adults had read when they were first published and so had them on their shelves (e.g. Orwell.) So those bibliomemoirs speak to us, it’s like having a bookish conversation about shared experiences.

    • Thanks Lisa … I did notice that you’d read Walker too but decided to just focus on the positive reviews largely because of the subject matter of Walker’s which makes it a special case in a way.

      Yes, I agree re being most likely to like those that cover ground we know and can relate to. As you and Book Riot say it’s like having a bookish conversation with a peer.

  8. Hi Sue, yes I am a fan. I have read all the ones you mention. I also have enjoyed reading y Edmund White’ s An Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, and Larry McMurty’s A Passion for Books.

  9. I’ve read a few of these, including Reading Lolita in Tehran (which I loved, so I’m pleased to see the author has another book). I think some are less successful than others – I wasn’t much impressed by The Road to Middlemarch, which I read just after I started blogging, for instance. I think they are most successful when the author really engages with the impact that a given work has had on them.

    • Thanks Lou. I’ve heard of the Middlemarch one but haven’t read it. I came across someone recently who said they didn’t like Reading Lolita in Tehran. I couldn’t understand it myself … takes all readers I suppose?! That’s a good point about the impact on the author. That’s certainly a big feature of Carey’s.

  10. I didn’t like The Road To Middlemarch. The bookmade George Eliot to be a middlebrow purveyor of life lessons.Rather puts me off this genre.

    • That’s interesting Ian … I can see how, depending how authors write these books they could come across that way. Fortunately I think Carey avoids this, even though she methodically lists the requirements for happiness, because she finds more of them in Von Arnim’s life, letters and journals than in her novels. Many of her novels then also reflect these requirements because most of them are drawn from life.

  11. I like that last quote as it chimes with my adherence to reception theory: the reader creates the book. I liked Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, but I found The Road to Middlemarch “too much”, apparently because there was too much conjecture and personal stuff.

  12. I can’t think of too many bibliomemoirs I’ve enjoyed….which does include Reading Lolita in Tehran (I explain in my review here: I tend to enjoy more a mention of perhaps A book or genre the author loved and then how they went about engaging with that book in real life. Of course this is not a real life example, but I’m thinking of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables and how she would reenact poems or stories she’d read. I love stuff like that. But I’ve tried a few books about books and don’t get much out of them. I’d rather listen to a podcast and get some ideas of what to check out. Or, I mean, we’ve always had indexes at the library — basically a book that lists books!

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