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.