For the Love of Books: Why Memoirs Matter (part 2 of 6)

By Becky Swanberg, writer, teacher and friend of eMoon


I’m a fiction girl. When it comes to books, movies, TV shows, or even lectures- all I want is a good story.

Non-fiction reading? If I must.

Documentaries?  I’ll watch out of conscience but not interest. 

TED talks? For fun? Really?

This is just how I’m wired. The list of fiction I’ve stayed up all night to finish is tens times longer than the list of non-fiction I’ve ever cracked open. I want a story not a thesis. I want to be enthralled not informed. I want to meet people, go places, feel things.

Enter memoir.

Yes, personal memoir: the one genre of non-fiction that I can honestly say I enjoy and reread and excitedly pass on to others. These are not the non-fiction books I find lost under my bed, a post-it note marking my place in the early chapters. Oh, no. Memoirs are simply someone’s true story, and I can get into that.

There’s something about the good, the bad, and the ugly of someone else’s life that leaves me wide-eyed. It’s almost as though the stakes in the story are higher because it is real. It happened. All the people on these pages are…well, people. And this narrative that is being woven isn’t just a story; it’s actually someone’s story.

Around ten years ago I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. In this true account, Nafisi tells of her time as a professor in Iran and recounts her relationships with her female students, their challenges amidst the political and religious restrictions, and her own personal journey to reconcile her inner and outer world. In the book, Professor Nafisi gathered a group of female students to secretly study the great novels of western literature, working through classics like Gatsby and Lolita. The result is a difficult and courageous story, one that I had no context for but wholly admired in the telling.

I could not relate to the specific experience of life in Iran. I had never taught college, had kids, lived in a culture with extreme restrictions towards women, or dealt with the family and societal expectations that reflected the culture. I had never had a dress code, hurried home by a state-enforced curfew, or seated myself in a “women-only” section of a restaurant. It almost read more like fiction; though I knew it to be true, it didn’t feel true to me.

Then I read this quote, a reflection of the main character as she processes her family’s decision to leave Iran.


“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

Then I set the book down and wept. As a military kid, I knew too well the experience of leaving. And never before had I been able to articulate how you truly say good-bye to part of yourself when you move. But Azir Nafisi had said it for me.

 I could not claim to have experienced her life, but I could relate to the emotions. That is what memoir has to offer us. Memoirs tell us that our experiences are unique but our emotions are universal. It’s those universal emotions that draw us in, but it is someone else’s perspective that can truly call us out.

From reading a memoir, we can push pause on our own life. In the pages of someone else’s childhood, we can begin to stop playing our own story on repeat. We can let walls down, prejudices fade, ignorance wither. With the help of a narrative, we can identify with another’s experience, and often more accurately interpret our own.

This is memoir: stories that inspire reflection, encourage empathy, and offer us another’s shoes to walk in for a bit.

Sometimes the journey wears us out. Sometimes we’re repulsed or heartbroken or simply weighed down by another’s truth. At the end of the day, a well-written memoir can widen our perspective and yet somehow draw us more closely to others. Memoir reminds us of the courage that is shown not only in the honest telling of a hard story, but in the living of a hard story.  

Memoirs offer us the chance to grow up again as someone else, to see the world from other eyes, to celebrate and mourn and carry the weight of an entirely other story. And in the journey, we can become stronger and kinder and more understanding.

Unique experiences. Shared emotions. Better people.

Thank you, memoir. 

Follow Becky's other amusing musings on her website at www.beckyswanberg.com. While you're at it, do us a solid and encourage her to publish those manuscripts!