Edgar Allan Poe judged the greatest tragedy of existence to be humanity’s innate loneliness – our inescapable singularity. As close as one might feel to another, we largely live and die alone, sharing mere slivers of ourselves – our thoughts, fears, loves and hopes – with the outside world. Art, however, can sometimes transcend this seemingly unbreachable boundary.
The best memoirs lay bare their authors, inviting us to witness lives not like ours, but curiously not unlike them either. The following seven memoirs are powerful. Between them, they cover war, addiction, poverty, love, alienation and creation.
1. Dry by Augusten Burroughs
Augusten Burroughs followed up his much-lauded Running with Scissors with this tale of alcoholism and recovery. A highly-paid copywriter, Burroughs intense love affair with the bottle lands him in rehab, where he finds that getting sober is more than a platitude and less than a death sentence.
2. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Aside from boasting the best memoir title OF ALL TIME, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (“Suck City” being Scituate, Mass.) is an interesting coming of age tale in which Flynn, employed as a social worker, encounters his estranged, homeless father one night at a shelter. The alcoholic con man has been absent from his son’s life for 20 years – out of sight, but never out of mind. As Flynn struggles to make sense of this relationship, he worries his demons may be hereditary.
3. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
For those who think poverty has been largely eradicated in America, this is the book for you. Jeannette Walls – a successful gossip columnist and author – grows up in squalor, eating from school dumpsters, hoarding coins and playing with fire. (Her parents – a pair of mentally disturbed geniuses – prove more concerned with adventure and alcohol than child-rearing.) Though Walls is honest, she never falls into self-pity and her book is masterful at conveying the complex and contradictory emotions we often feel toward the ones we love best – even when they don’t deserve it.
4. Memoirs by Tennessee Williams
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a hugenormous Tennessee Williams fan (and if you aren’t, you probably don’t have much of a soul). From Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to The Rose Tattoo, he is The Man. It is little wonder, then, that his memoirs are the most poignant and honest I’ve read. Whether Williams is recounting his early sexual experiences prowling the docks (sailors!) or a very enigmatic meeting with young Marlon Brando, Williams’ storytelling and pathos are without parallel.
5. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
OK, before you hit the roof, it IS a great book. Memoirists are storytellers – and storytellers take liberties to make their tales more tragic, more bizarre, more amusing, more suspenseful, more… better. While Frey does all of the above (and then some), he also gives voice to the brutal, visceral world of addiction, successfully keeping the reader less at arm’s length than in a headlock.
6. Night by Elie Wiesel
This incredibly moody and tangible memoir is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. At the age of 16, Elie Wiesel finds himself in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz; while he and his father escape the initial “selection,” the nightmare is only beginning.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed… Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” Plagued by survivor guilt, Wiesel struggles to make sense of his experiences, but comes up short. There are no heroes in Hell.
7. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous account of his wild, booze-soaked days in 1920s Paris is a triumph of mise en scene. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast,” writes Hemingway. With a cast of characters that includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Gertrude Stein, A Moveable Feast reads like a Who’s Who of early 20th century literature. It is a remarkably vibrant, visceral memoir that captures a celebrated era in the legendary city.
Honorable mentions: Lit by Mary Beth Karr, The Kid Stays In The Picture by Robert Evans, Company Aytch by Sam R. Watkins and The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer.
Share your favorite memoirs in the comment section below. Tell me who I’m missing!