Treasures on the Shelves — Memoir vs. Biography

Published 10:17 am Saturday, September 10, 2022

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Recently I was browsing through one of the many book review magazines that I read each month. This particular issue was spotlighting biographies and memoirs and I learned that a biography aims to be a comprehensive account of the subject’s life, with many experiences making up the larger narrative.

A memoir, on the other hand, focuses on one part of a person’s life, whether it is an event or even a series of events, with the goal of discovering and assimilating the emotional truths found within. With these definitions in mind, I found several memoirs that I believe to be excellent examples of the genre.

Cicely Tyson was one of the most celebrated actors of her generation. She won nearly every acting award imaginable and had a wide range of film, stage and television performances. Her 2020 memoir, “Just as I Am”, was published just two days before her death at age 96. Tyson structures her memoir as a parable for the authenticity that comes from growth and experience. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in the performing arts, the civil rights struggle and the failures and triumphs of a woman determined to follow her own path.

Michael J. Fox is another actor who has had success in both film and television but his memoir, “Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist” focuses on his beliefs and the life experiences he drew on when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Fox reflects on his life and career and how his diagnosis affected both of these but also how these same experiences gave him the framework to view his illness as an opportunity.

Journalist and author Joan Didion, who passed away at the end of 2021, was an award-winning writer who built a career on cultural observation and insight. In her book “Blue Nights”, she writes about the death of her daughter and examines her role as a mother and as an aging woman. In her trademark straightforward style, Didion explores motherhood and growing older through the traditional ways society expects these events to play out. Her conclusions are both incisive and poignant.

Memoirs aren’t always written by well-known people with world-famous careers. “Sting-Ray Afternoons” is a delightful book about growing up in the1970’s. Author Steve Rushin writes lovingly about his family and friends in suburban Minnesota, with all the attendant cultural touchstones of that era, including the titular bicycle. This book made me laugh out loud and reflect fondly on my own memories of a 70’s childhood.

These titles are just a few examples of memoirs available at your library. If you usually choose titles outside this genre, take the time to explore the many lives and experiences waiting to be read!

Holly Howze is the branch manager for the Ripberger Public Library located in Kenbridge. She can be reached at