I love reading biographies, autobiographies, journals, and collections of letters. I think these are my favorite genres of literature, especially when they’re about writers or other artists.
I’ve wondered why I like reading these things about people even when I don’t so much enjoy their main expression of their talent. For instance, I loved reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters in The Habit of Being. I loved reading about life in the rural South (where I’ve never been), in the fifties and early sixties (before I was born). I enjoyed, as I always do, reading about the creative process and her writing routine. As a Catholic woman, I was very interested to read her theological musings and her defense of the Church (even though, as she said, she knew “all her hair-raising history”). I liked how she had a wry and sarcastic streak, was self-deprecating, and had a biting wit.
I don’t like her fiction.
I had read a few stories early in college and barely remembered them, so after reading her letters about 2.5 times, I ordered the collection of her short stories. Other than “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” I was really just depressed and disturbed by every one of them, and not disturbed in a good, thought-provoking way. Just creeped out. I know that she had arguments with her mother about the tone of her writing, and I know she was not interested in writing pleasant fiction that appealed to the masses, so it’s not like she missed her mark. I just don’t ever want to re-read her stories.
Savage Beauty is another book I devoured. Loved it, pored over the photos, re-read it. Edna St. Vincent Millay did have an interesting life with some peculiar twists, and I loved reading about it.
I don’t like poetry at all. Not just hers. I don’t like any poetry. Which also means that while I actually made notes in Diane Di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman, I only went to hear her read because I wanted to see her in person, not because I wanted to hear poetry.
I could go on, but the point seems to be that I prefer personal nonfiction. I know that one reason I love life stories is that they’re just real, and nothing is in service to a plot. Nothing shocking needs to happen; a person, however gifted and successful, can have a fairly straightforward life, or a less-straightforward life but one without jaw-dropping twists and turns, and that’s that. It’s probably related to how I love to watch European films where not much happens in terms of plot — I just want a slice of life in a culture I don’t get to live in. Car chases in LA don’t excite me very much.
Also, as someone who has always felt a bit of an odd duck, I love being able to get inside someone else’s life and even, in the case of letters and journals, somewhat into their head. Other people’s thought processes fascinate me, and when I find someone with whom I agree about a lot of things (distressingly, I have a lot in common with the Sylvia Plath of her journals), I rejoice. Another odd duck! And an odd duck who was successful or talented enough to warrant the book in my hands being published.
Spiritual memoirs are often different, because I will read books about theology, liturgy, Church history, and the like. I loved The Seven Storey Mountain but have also read other works by Merton (though not, of course, his poetry). I’m reading, off and on, The Book of Margery Kempe, and The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, but in those cases I’m interested in more than just what they did and what their daily lives were like (though that fascinates as well).
I do feel a little awkward, though, looking at my bookcases and seeing so my biographies, autobiographies, and collections of letters by and about writers, whose actual works appear nowhere in my home.
A topic for another time: How I read cookbooks like novels.