Our Collection

Writing My Life

For some readers, the word “memoir” brings to mind an instant cataloging of the form’s perceived standard deficiencies—self-congratulation, indiscretion, narcissism, duplicity, and worse. And after what seems like a recent deluge of published memoirs, coupled with a few high-profile outings of fraudulent memoirs, readers are eyeing the self-penned life with ever-increasing skepticism. In the midst of our confessional age, though, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the form has actually been thriving for centuries, consistently producing enduring works of literature while causing scandals and battling similar accusations through the ages. Ben Yagoda points out in his book Memoir: A History that Isaac D’Israeli warned readers as early as 1809 that “we shall expect to see an epidemical rage for auto-biography break out,” and in 1827 the critic John Lockhart was already lamenting “the mania for this garbage of Confessions, and Recollections, and Reminiscences."

While we may not be able to redeem the form in the eyes of its critics, in this round of book recommendations the Library staff sings the praises of their favorites from the Library’s vast collection of memoirs, autobiographies, and journals. Unsurprisingly, the selections cover a wide array of subjects—fascinating lives lived in literature, war, music, crime, and more—and we hope you find something here to enjoy. —Steven McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions

Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara | Joe LeSueur
In Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, Joe LeSueur describes his life among the New York School poets and artists. LeSueur met O’Hara at party in 1955 and they became fast friends. Both were young, gay, and prone to bad behavior. For the next ten years they lived together, mostly as friends but sometimes as lovers, coinciding with the most productive period of O’Hara’s life.  The book is electric, bouncing from high-minded to lowbrow as easily as LeSueur and O’Hara did.  It is populated with painters and pickups, the famous and the long- forgotten, and features quite a collection of booze-soaked antics. At the center of it all is O’Hara’s poetry, still as fresh and irreverent as it was when he wrote it. —Patrick Rayner, Acquisitions Assistant/Circulation Assistant

The Railway Man: A POW’s Searing Account of War, Brutality, and Forgiveness | Eric Lomax
Eric Lomax was a dull young Scotsman whose only distinguishing feature was his passion for railroads.  Absorbed into the army at the start of World War II, he was dispatched to Malaysia just in advance of the 1942 Japanese conquest.  In a staggering irony, the occupiers used him and over 150,000 other Allied prisoners of war as near-slaves—building a railroad.  Discovered with an illicit radio, Lomax was tortured.  He would come home deeply scarred, until an unlikely encounter with his torturer decades later presented a path to true freedom.  His painfully straightforward rendering of his early passivity, his wartime trauma, and his tentative grasp at healing in an indifferent society is shocking, touching, and haunting.

The saga of the English speakers who contributed to the Thai-Burma Railway is well documented but not widely known.  Lomax’s memoir is one of the best personal testimonials on the subject; other excellent titles in the Library’s collection include Ian Denys Peek’s One Fourteenth of an Elephant, Ernest Gordon’s Through the Valley of the Kwai, and artist Ronald Searle’s To the Kwai and Back. —Sara Holliday, Events Coordinator

Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans | Louis Armstrong
Through my work in the archives of the Louis Armstrong House Museum,  I have come to appreciate the American icon for a multitude of under-recognized talents, hobbies, and virtues--including collage art, home audio recordings, and a unique and distinctive writing voice. Said Tallulah Bankhead, “He uses words like he strings notes together, artistically and vividly,” and upon his preferred yellow type paper with green pen, Armstrong translated his infectious and idiosyncratic personality to the page. He recounts, in his 1954 memoir, a dirt-floor upbringing in the tough and tumble “Back ‘o’ Town” of New Orleans. Not setting foot in a classroom past fifth grade, adolescent Armstrong had stints selling wares on a junk wagon and shoveling coal. It was an Independence Day prank which landed him in the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, where he was first encouraged to take up the bugle and cornet. Satchmo actually ends where “Satchmo” the musical legend begins, bound for the bright lights of Chicago in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. There is a fitting orality to Armstrong’s prose, a gumbo of jive speak and plain English punctuated by his gift for emphasis and pacing. His output can be further explored in Louis Armstrong In His Own Words: Selected Writings, an anthology of letters, remembrances, and a very special paean to marijuana. —Brynn White, Bibliographic and Systems/Digital Projects Assistant

Journal | Jules Renard (edited and translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget)
It was difficult to choose among the autobiographical works I have enjoyed over the years, but surely one of the finest I have read is the journal of Jules Renard. Renard (1846-1910) is not exactly a household name in the U.S., but he was a popular author and playwright in his native France. His journal (which spans 1887-1910) is a brilliant, beautiful work of introspection and reflection. Whether Renard is examining the writing life, self-doubt, death, friendship, family, or life in the provincial French town of which he was mayor, there is an aphoristic gem on almost every page. Among all these book recommendations, it seems fitting to quote this entry from Mr. Renard: "when I think of all the books still left for me to read, I am certain of further happiness."

I have an admitted weakness for well-told stories of life in the margins, and one favorite is Malcom Braly’s False Starts (1976). Braly (1925-1980), the author of the acclaimed novel On the Yard, spent nearly 20 years in and out of jail. False Starts is a vivid portrait of prison life, and a strangely matter-of-fact look at bad habits, bad luck, bad decisions, and an inability to stay out of jail. Mining somewhat similar territory, Art Pepper’s Straight Life is an eloquent piece of L.A. noir describing his life as an internationally celebrated jazz saxophonist and a heroin addict who spent nearly ten years behind bars. —Steven McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions

My Dog Tulip & My Father & Myself | J.R. Ackerley
British writer and editor J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) is an excellent storyteller whose favorite subject happens to be himself. Openly homosexual at a time when this was almost unheard of, Ackerley writes about himself and his relationships with compassion and wit. His magisterial command of his craft makes him a pleasure to read. My Dog Tulip is Ackerley’s ode to his German Shepherd. Real-life Queenie was his “Ideal Friend,” the loyal, loving, “normal” companion he never found in countless love affairs, some of which he describes in My Father & Myself. Published posthumously, this is an intensely personal account of Ackerley’s discovery of the secret life lead by his deceased father.  As he comes to terms with his father’s secrets, he reflects on his own life as a gay man, from youth to old age. My favorite Ackerley, We Think the World of You, is a fictionalization of his introduction to Queenie.  “Frank” is a middle aged civil servant whose lover needs someone to care for his dog when he lands in prison.  Jealous rivalry, heartbreak, and unexpected reconciliations ensue. —Erin Schreiner, Special Collections Librarian

Daughters and Rebels | Jessica Mitford
I am a huge fan of this genre and read more memoir and autobiographies than any other type of non-fiction. Increasingly, however, too many from recent years have that overly-manicured MFA-workshop tone to them, which makes them largely indistinguishable from each other.  They also tend to be written irritatingly in the present tense. Isn’t a memoir by definition about something that’s already taken place?

Welcome exceptions to such drivel are the memoirs of Jessica Mitford, in particular her Daughters and Rebels (1960). First published in England as Hons and Rebels, it is a witty account of growing up between the world wars in a notoriously eccentric family. The novelist Nancy Mitford was an older sister; two other sisters, Diana and Unity, embraced the fascist cause, while Jessica moved to the far left with plans to join the Communist Party. Despite much personal tragedy—the failed suicide attempt of Unity after the declaration of war between Germany and Britain, the loss of an infant daughter, and the death of her husband in combat shortly after the outbreak of the war—Mitford’s tone is resilient and her sense of humor remains intact. —Laura O’Keefe, Head of Cataloging and Special Collections

Garlic and Sapphires | Ruth Reichl
Before moving to New York permanently, I made numerous trips here. At the end of one visit, I picked up a copy of Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires. I read her early paean to her hometown: "Alone in New York, I wandered the streets and allowed the city to seduce me". As I devoured this memoir, I tried out a few of her recipes. (My mother's book club still raves about the gougères.) You can taste them for yourself and visit some of the restaurants she critiqued while learning about the wild lengths she went to experience them. If you want to ingest all her delicious memoirs, start with Tender at the Bone (childhood to chefhood), move on to Comfort Me with Apples (her critic-hood begins), and finish with Garlic. All of them include delightful stories and intriguing recipes from those melt-in-your-mouth cheese popovers to fried brains! —Susan Vincent Molinaro, Public Services Librarian