The week of October 31 is being blitzkrieged by personal essays and memoirs. For funny bones: Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling and That Is All by John Hodgman. For the politico, there’s No Higher Honor, a memoir by Condoleezza Rice, about her time in the White House; for politicos of a different stripe, there’s Jodi Kantor’s much anticipated The Obamas. And for just about anyone, there’s Blue Nights by Joan Didion.
But what’s the appeal of personal writing? How could there be a market for six memoirs in one day? To get to the bottom of it, let’s start at the top.
The best memoir I’ve ever read is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Wolff’s recollections of his boyhood are devoid of sentimentality, so immediate and closely observed that it feels closer to a novel—the scenes in which Toby lies to a nun and his fistfight with Arthur Gayle (which improbably begins their friendship) particularly stand out. Toby was a bastard in real life, and in the book he presents himself as a bastard. It’s easy to forget he grew up to be the measured, thoughtful man who happened to write the very book you’re reading.
My favorite essayist—and here I risk sounding like that guy who likes David Foster Wallace—is David Foster Wallace. His essays, even when ostensibly covering a topic outside your particular interests, still find a way to make you care. He spins his idiosyncratic responses—his fascination with David Lynch, his revulsion for cruise vacations—into universals. His essay, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” in which he describes the ecstasy of watching Federer play tennis, becomes a meditation on beauty and an invitation to the reader to define what invokes for them that same awe. (If you’re asking me, it’s the last chapter in Ulysses and There Will Be Blood.)
That’s the strange thing about the best memoirs and essays: they are, by definition, from a subjective point-of-view. But the good ones, the really good ones, make us forget that. The best memoirs and essays indulge the reader.
And to further indulge you, dear reader, this week’s Tip Sheet features a reading list from the hilarious Hodgman; an exclusive excerpt from Kaling’s memoir; a ranking of Sherlock Holmes stories from Anthony Horowitz, author of The House of Silk, the first authorized new Holmes mystery in more than a century; and assorted oddities from Awkward Family Pet Photos.