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In Search of Memoir

Over the weekend, I went in search of Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, the original parenting memoir, which I am finally getting around to reading in my older child’s third year of life.  I headed first to the Tattered Cover Lodo and, later, to Boulder Books; at each store, I stood staring up at the big board listing the various sections by subject, only to discover that “Memoir”  was not included.

Later on, I stumbled on this video of Augusten Burroughs, “The Art of Memoir.”  Burroughs, of course, is a prolific memoirist whose incredible recall of his strange childhood and eccentric family has led to questions about the veracity of his accounts, so it is perhaps no surprise that he spends the first 5 or 6 minutes of this overly long video explaining his take on the difference between memoir and fiction.  While his example (two valid perspectives on a car wreck: that of a passerby and that of the drivers, both= memoir; add a made-up school bus full of screaming kids to either account and it become fiction) lends little to the ongoing debate, I sat up and paid attention to the text card introducing the next section of video: Is Memoir the Middle Ground Between Fiction and Non-Fiction?

What follows is Burrough’s struggle to classify memoir.  Memoir is blogging, he says, memoir is youtube; memoir is not like a Biography of a president, comprised of “proven” reportage and factual research.  Memoir is more objective, less factual.  Yet in fact, at the book stores I visited memoir was shelved with Biography, alphabetical by subject (meaning, in the case of memoir, by author), except when a main theme of the memoir happened to explore a topic that has its own bookstore classification, such as Lamott’s Operating Instructions, shelved, I finally learned,  in Parenting.

On LibraryThing, a website that catalogs your personal library and suggests other titles you might be interested in based on your collection, the Operating Instructions page paints the classification dilemma in a different way: While “books with similar tags” turns up a litany of parenting titles, “people with this book also have” is a list largely of other memoirs; it seems to me that while the subject of this book is parenting, readers of the book are interested in its point of view, in this author’s particular experience of parenting.  They weren’t looking for actual operating instructions, but  a story they might see themselves in, that might teach them something on a more emotional or purely human level.  Which is the beauty and the power of memoir.

A few days later I was shelving books at my daughter’s school library, and as I put frog books with frog books based on a number on the spine, I found myself wondering: What would Dewey do?  The Dewey Decimal system specifies more precise categorization than a book store and, curiosity piqued, I took a look at the Dewey Decimal Classification chart and discovered (no surprise by now) that there is no category for Memoir.  And  the divisions that Burroughs struggles with are stricter here: Fiction falls to the 800s, Literature and rhetoric, while Biography, grouped with “genealogy and insignia” falls squarely in the 900s, History and Geography.  To see how memoirs fared, I did a few comparative searches for some of the better known titles  of our age, and found it eye-opening.  Operating Instructions falls under 306, “Culture and Institutions,” keeping company in the 300s, Social Sciences, with James Frey’s infamous A Million Little Pieces at 362, “Social Welfare Problems and Services.”  David Sedaris, who I expected to hold an 817 for “Satire and Humor ” instead shares space with Mary Karr in 818, “Miscellaneous Writings.”  And Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors and Dry are both classified 813 (ready for this?): fiction, though they are both shelved in “Adult Non-Fiction.”

We memoirists know we are standing in muddy waters, especially post-Frey, and I wonder if A Million Little Pieces will be re-classified to Fiction.  At least then it would fall under the heading of literature which, love it or revile it, I think the book–and memoir as a genre– deserves.

Let’s get at it one more way: Memoirs look strange lined up next to Biographys or Social Science texts; even the jacket art is vastly different.  So why can’t memoir just have its own section?  Even “extra=terrestrial worlds” gets a number, at 999.

In the Dewey Decimal system, under Literature and Rhetoric, 804 and 819, both “Not assigned or no longer in use,” appear to be available.

2 comments on “In Search of Memoir

  1. andreadupree
    November 28, 2009

    Great post, Heather. I loved Operating Instructions. (Did you read it yet?) I’ve noticed the same thing about memoir — living with a memoirist, I’m often trying to find gift books for him. And because I’m always running late, I find myself stopping on the way to the party, sprinting through the bookstore in a fever of panic, like Tom Cruise running through Times Square in that modern classic, Vanilla Sky. (What? You haven’t seen it?)

    In short, we need to organize and rebel!

  2. jesakalong
    November 30, 2009

    I love that you decided to find out what Dewey would do with memoir. It’s even more confusing than bookstore shelving! (And definitely entertaining, the way you told it.) It’s very difficult to find memoirs, though the Colfax Tattered Cover does a great job displaying them–perhaps because their biography section is so big. Other, chain bookstores make it nearly impossible to find them. I’m with you: memoirs deserve their own genre!

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This entry was posted on November 25, 2009 by in Complaint, The Scoop, The Write Idea and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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