Why We Love To Read Biographies And Memoirs

Every person’s life is like a story. Some stories are sad, some are funny, some full of challenges and yet, at the core, every life has all of these. As human beings, we love to tell our stories and in doing so, we recognise the entire gamut of human emotions which are part and parcel of the wheel of life. This is why we love to read autobiographies, biographies and memoirs.

While in college, I was tremendously influenced by Paramhansa Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’. Since then, hundreds of books on great men and women have been read through the years and enjoyed throughly, each book substantiating the meaning of life.

I just finished reading Asha Parekh’s biography (memoirs) called ‘The Hit Girl’. Mind you, Asha was a twinkle, twinkle, mega-star in THOSE days when the only exposure to the film world was through film-songs on Vividh Bharti and Radio Ceylon, apart from Times of India’s Filmfare. Doordarshan had yet to establish itself and filmstars had no access to TV channels, social media or PR agencies to promote films. Many of today’s semi-educated stars hire ghost-writers to write their newspaper-columns and blogs. Ashaji is humble enough to acknowledge Khalid Mohamed’s contribution to this book.

Ashaji, like Salman Khan, is into charity in a fairly substantial way. She has established a hospital and has helped several people anonymously. She has given back to society all that was within her means. There have been no scandals or frivolous love-affairs in her life and when the greatest love of her life came along, her own love was so pure and ‘unselfish’ that she loved him enough to send him back to his wife. As for the purity of friendship, she knew it’s true meaning long before words like BFF (Best friend forever) were invented and her bond with Shammi (Ms. Rabadi) has been stretched over several decades like a metaphorical friendship-band.

At a personal level, Ashaji’s book was a walk down the memory lane since I have seen every movie of hers. It rewinded my mind to happy memories during courtship since her ‘Love in Tokyo’ was my first movie-date with hubby and in 1966 on honeymoon, we saw ‘Tesri Manzil’ in Bangalore and sang all those beautiful songs in the first flush of love.

This brings us to today’s topic of discussion. Why do we like to read about other people’s lives? Why do people love to read memoirs? Walk into any large bookstore these days and what do you see? Memoirs, memoirs everywhere- the true stories of people who have achieved something and we can’t seem to get enough of it. They can be fierce, innocent, frank, fearless, funny, moving, gripping about secret desires and loss but always intimate. It’s the story of other people’s life filled with memories, melancholy and even humour.

Tell me a story. Tell me YOUR story. Wait. Let me get comfortable. OK talk to me, tell me who you really are. This is what we feel as we sit down to read a memoir. We have a craving for connection, an urge to share confidence. We want an intimate glimpse of someone else’s life – not what happened but what the writer MAKES of what happened. This is why we slurp up memoirs as if they were ‘latte-coffees’ while publishing houses scurry to keep up with the demand. Today, bookstore-shelves groan beneath the weight of memoirs.

At a meeting of a group called the Memoir-Club in London in 1920, Virginia Woolf shocked her fellow writers with the true story of the incestuous relationship she shared with her half-brother. Later she wrote, “What possessed me to lay bare my soul, I’ll never know.”  When we read a memoir, we relate to the author at so many levels like empathy, self-examination, personal and intimate details of tragedies and set-backs, wondering ‘What would I do under similar circumstances?’ Or at times, the urge to hug the tragic-author and say “It’s ok, everything will soon change for the better”. We realise that ultimately, regardless of differing walks of life, accomplishments and failures, at the core, we are all human and make mistakes.

If like me, you love talking and listening to people, relating to their flaws and shortcomings, absorbing their despair, rejoicing in their triumphs and marvelling at their integrity, energy and humour, then we are both students of human nature and as such, we get enthused by memories, picking up and discarding ideas along the way, to become who we are right now. It’s about peeling back the layers of fear that keeps you mired in that part of the brain that says ‘I can’t’ and finally realising that you absolutely can, and you should and you must.

There’s nothing more enlightening, more liberating or more likely to leave you feeling a little less alone in the world than being able to put your own life-story into words with all its telling details and defining moments – even if you never publish it!!

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