Support our Libraries: how my local library helped foster my addiction to memoirs - Emma Newlands

I can’t say I don’t love the thrill of powering through a great novel, wowed by the literary mind that has conjured up whole worlds, unguessable plots, and shrewdly observed, plausible characters from their imagination.

But there is one book genre that will always by the first to metaphorically jump off the shelves into my grasp, and which I can never get enough of – and that is the memoir.

My reading list is a very broad church, from high-profile musicians to “ordinary” people such as paramedics who have put their extraordinary story to paper. But what they all have in common is that they have overcome some kind of adversity, and that is what I find so utterly compelling.

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My interest in the memoir genre was first piqued in my teens when I read Castaway by Lucy Irvine, about her “trouble in paradise” account of spending a year living on a desert island.

Emma Newlands is fascinated by the world of memoirs. Picture: Getty Images

I was hooked – she talked so vividly about her experiences (including the acerbic sting of seawater on raw wounds), living an experience at the more outlandish end of any scripted plot.

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Later, it was my local library that helped foster my addiction, where I would regularly seek out my latest “hit”. Titles I borrowed included true-life works by Elizabeth Wurtzel, post-Prozac Nation, who talked about her depression, and Tom Sykes, who described how his job as nightlife columnist at the New York Post saw him fall into a world of excess.

If I hadn’t had the library, I never could have accessed this endless supply of a first-hand view of someone else’s world and feelings. It was also great training for later doing in-depth profiles of business leaders – I was keen to peel back the façade to see the real person underneath, and any challenges/other key moments they’d faced.

One of my favourites is Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, a fast-paced account of a world of fire and knives, addiction, and a love of food catalysed by eating his first oyster. Picture: Mike Coppola/Getty Images.

Another key moment was when I casually bought a copy of Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, thinking it would be at least a mildly entertaining account of life behind the pass, but I had in fact got my hands a brilliant, vivid account of a world of fire and knives, addiction, and a love of food catalysed by eating his first oyster.

“It tasted of seawater... of brine and flesh... and, somehow.... of the future. Everything was different now. Everything,” he wrote.

In recent years I have read – to name but a mere few – the autobiographies of, say, musician Johnny Marr and Creation Records’ Alan McGee; Claude Littner of the Apprentice; memoirs such as The Wolf Of Wall Street; people who have left Orthodox Judaism, women diagnosed with autism (Sara Gibbs’ excellent Drama Queen). Some of the trashier celebrity ones now and then too.

Fascinated

And I am not alone in my love of the autobiography genre. Heather Suttie, founder of book group Bookface, says: “I devour memoirs, and read around 12 a year, because I’m fascinated by people and their personal stories.

“There’s something special about memoirs, nuggets of love, laughter, tragedy, inspiration, and you always learn something. Even the poorly written ones can be hugely entertaining.”

Indeed. And booksellers also seem to be witnessing, and reaping the rewards of, memoirs’ popularity – with Duncan Furness of Topping & Company Booksellers of Edinburgh, seeing that biographies/autobiographies have been selling very well for many years.

“In troubled times, biographies can help to show us a way through: give us examples of how others coped in challenging situations (eg Raynor Winn, Tamsin Calidas), keep us smiling (Bob Mortimer, Billy Connelly), take us to (not so?) distant places and times (Alan Turing, Chips Channon), show us how not to do it (The Fall by John Preston, about Robert Maxwell), give heroes to inspire us (Maya Angelou, Sue Black) and let us dream about unattainable lifestyles (Joan Collins, Lady Glenconner).

“It is a genre that bends with the times, and has something for absolutely everyone.”

In fact Nielsen BookScan found that And Away… by Bob Mortimer was the seventh best-selling book overall in 2021, with Billy Connolly’s autobiography Windswept and Interesting in ninth place.

Separately, Amazon UK also cited autobiographies from Dave Grohl, Miriam Margolyes and Paul McCartney as being among its best-selling titles last year.

Therapy

I find reading memoirs massively therapeutic, and, as writer James Baldwin said: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

I think one way reading memoirs helps is that the author is explaining their experiences with the benefit of hindsight, and you can also project yourself to some extent onto their story.

I am therefore fascinated to learn about ”bibliotherapy” – the use of books as therapy.

A keen proponent of the concept is Soraya Nair, managing editor of Cherish Editions, an imprint of the TriggerHub group, which is “built on” bibliotherapy, and whose titles include Help: Comedy. Tragedy. Therapy. by comedian Simon Amstell as well as people’s accounts of say homelessness and grief.

Ms Nair says bibliotherapy is so effective because it’s highly accessible and cost-effective – although she stresses that other forms of recovery such as talking therapies and medication are helpful too. “I would also recommend that anyone suffering speaks to their medical practitioner,” she adds.

Recovery

But she believes bibliotherapy "allows a person to begin their recovery at their own pace, and research has shown that, as you read, your brain mirrors the experience and emotions that are happening to the character(s) in the book. This means that when you read a lived experience book… your brain has already experienced the emotions and has begun to process the path to recovery.”

She also says the massive growth of social media has shown that users have an “obvious interest in hearing from people whose experiences mirror their own” – adding: “Being able to see your qualities or struggles in others creates a connection with them and, in the case of mental health, it helps people feel like they’re not alone.

“Plus, as mental health awareness grows in popular culture and as celebrities speak out about their experiences, it reminds people that even high-profile personalities have the same hardships as the average person.

“Again, this trend shows people that no one is perfect, but everyone is capable of recovery, so, overall, I’d say people’s interest in celebrities and ‘everyday’ people are both very high. Their stories have the power to create the same impact and influence on certain topics.

Anthony Bourdain once said it was an “unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror in the morning and think, ‘You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.’”

But if anyone has a brilliantly written, compelling tale to tell, I am more than happy to read it – diving through the page into someone else’s world – and so are many, many others.

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