One of my favorite go-to genres is autobiographies and memoirs. These days there are tons—is it just me, or does everyone seem to write a book about their life?
What’s the correct term for this popular genre? Autobiography or memoir? I’ve heard both used interchangeably, but further research shows that there are slight differences between the two. Autobiographies usually chronicle someone’s entire life, from childhood until present day while memoirs focus on a specific time period or event (and often jump around in time). Autobiographies also usually include a lot of facts. Memoirs care more about the story and are less concerned with fact-checking and getting every detail right.
Another difference between autobiography and memoir is when the book happened to be written. Autobiographies were once the preferred style, written by celebrities or politicians. Now memoirs dominate with an intimate, conversational style and more room for embellishment or “stretching the truth” of personal history. Because of their more approachable style, anyone can write a memoir (and they do!).
I’ve already read quite a few autobiographies/memoirs this year; I’ve tried to classify them below!
This one is pretty straightforward. The word “autobiography” is actually in the title! Told to Alex Haley, Malcolm X recounts his life chronologically starting with his childhood and Haley finishes the story with Malcom’s untimely death.
Strayed writes about a specific time in her life—hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Flashing back and forth in time from the trail to memories of her mother, Strayed’s struggle to hike the PCT mirrors her quest to move on after her mother’s death. Focused on her experience, not facts, this book clearly falls into the memoir category.
Less straightforward to categorize is Anne Frank’s account of her time spent in hiding during WWII. While her diary mainly focuses on a specific time period, you can’t get a more accurate account than a diary. Readers get to experience Frank’s thoughts, emotions, and observations day-by-day, which is why I’ve chosen to label this book an autobiography.
I really struggled to categorize this one, especially since it was recently published and probably branded by publishers as a memoir. Following the criteria I laid out previously, Steinem’s book falls closer to autobiographies in a couple ways. Steinem begins the book in her childhood and (for the most part) continues chronologically through her life. Even though her theme is “my life on the road,” there isn’t one event or time that she emphasizes more than others. People, places, dates and other facts are also important to the story taking place.
This book combines text, illustrations, and comic strips into a truly unique story of a teenager growing up in San Francisco during the 1970s. Though the author will not directly say how closely the book follows her own life, she highly implies most of the story is based in truth. This book’s focus on Minnie’s teenage years and its questionable veracity leads me to label this book as a memoir.
Disagree with my classifications? Any good autobiographies/memoirs you’ve read recently? Let us know in the comments below!