The top three bestsellers in Amazon’s “Memoirs” category:
- A young neurosurgeon gets cancer and dies
- A young woman grows up next to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant that is poisoning her town
- A letter from an African American man to his son, “a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today”
These are not happy topics. The Memoirs category also is loaded with books about children who grow up abused or abandoned; remembrances of those who trashed their youth on drug-addled nastiness; being raised in a cult; struggles with severe mental illness.
Why do we want to read these books?
Did so many of us have tragedy and terror dominate our lives, so that we can relate to these books?
Or are we voyeurs, cruising through emotional ghettos, congratulating ourselves for being luckier or better off than these authors?
As a therapist once told me, we keep repeating the same psychodramas because we think they’ll turn out better this time.
I think we’re looking for a happy ending – as inspiration. If someone who had such a horrible childhood dealt with it and went on to live a decent life, then anything’s possible, right?
Despite the bleak topics, many of the bestsellers are, like The Glass Castle, memoirs of “resilience and redemption”:
When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.
Redemption is a theme that pre-dates written literature, and it hasn’t lost any of its luster for readers.
Sometimes that redemption is at the end of a very long and tortured path, as in The Gilded Razor:
By the age of seventeen, Sam Lansky was an all-star student with Ivy League aspirations in his final year at an elite New York City prep school. But a nasty addiction to prescription pills spiraled rapidly out of control, compounded by a string of reckless affairs with older men, leaving his bright future in jeopardy. After a terrifying overdose, he tried to straighten out. Yet as he journeyed from the glittering streets of Manhattan, to a wilderness boot camp in Utah, to a psych ward in New Orleans, he only found more opportunities to create chaos—until finally, he began to face himself.
I don’t know how much of the 320-page book is the redemption, but I hope it’s worth wading through the other pages of scum to get there.
My story is not so melodramatic as these bestsellers. I had a lot that went right in my young years.
I do have some practical advice about managing depression, though – that could be a book.
I’ve also learned the skills of improvisation – in cooking, travel, art, work and life – and that’s a book I’ve wanted to write for a long time.
At the core of both those books is that I see beauty everywhere. I’d like to help people enhance their ability to find, see and make beauty. So Seeing Beauty is another book.
But that’s probably not dark enough for the memoir category.
Let me know: which of these three books would YOU like to see published?
- Managing Depression
- The Adventure Girl Cookbook
- Seeing Beauty
Today’s penny is a 2005, the year that The Glass Castle was originally published. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for seven years.