Book number 22 in the 26-books-in-52-weeks challenge has to be a memoir or journal.
I enjoy reading books which come into this category. I like that they tend to follow a particular theme or a specific period of time in the author’s life. This makes them less dry than straight forward biography or autobiography. For me a good memoir or journal will present the reader with thoughts, stories and reflections that they can relate to, be inspired by or take comfort from.
Out of the many memoirs/journals that I’ve read, six spring to mind as worth a mention.
Three journals themed around the natural world
The Wilderness Journeys by John Muir: Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar in Scotland and he is credited as being the father of American conservation. His name has become synonymous with the preservation and protection of wilderness and wild land. At over 600 pages it’s a big book bit it’s an easy and rewarding read. It’s a collection of Muir’s writings gleaned from his journals. And in the words of the back cover – These journals provide a unique marriage of natural history with lyrical prose and often amusing anecdotes, retaining a freshness, intensity and brutal honesty which will amaze the modern reader.
Findings by Kathleen Jamie: Jamie is also a Scot and her writing is exquisite. From the book’s back cover – It’s surprising what you can find by simply stepping out to look. Kathleen Jamie, award winning poet, has an eye and an ease with the nature and landscapes of Scotland as well as an incisive sense of our domestic realities. In Findings she draws together these themes to describe travels like no other contemporary writer. Whether she is following the call of a peregrine in the hills above her home in Fife, sailing into a dark winter solstice on the Orkney islands, or pacing around the carcass of a whale on a rain-swept Hebridean beach, she creates a subtle and modern narrative, peculiarly alive to her connections and surroundings.
The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane: McFarlane, is an English nature writer and in this book he records and reflects on his thoughts whilst out walking in the natural landscape. From the back cover – Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.
Three memorable memoirs
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: Irish-American author, McCourt was born in New York but grew up in Ireland and in this book he writes about growing up in poverty in Limerick. It is honest, funny and poignant writing. From the book’s back cover – Frank McCourt’s sad, funny, bittersweet memoir of growing up in New York in the 30s and in Ireland in the 40s. It is a story of extreme hardship and suffering, in Brooklyn tenements and Limerick slums – too many children, too little money, his mother Angela barely coping as his father Malachy’s drinking bouts constantly brings the family to the brink of disaster. It is a story of courage and survival against apparently overwhelming odds.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson: In complete contrast to the above memoir, travel writer, Bryson’s account of his childhood in the 1950s and 60s in Iowa is laugh-out-loud funny. From the back cover – Bill Bryson’s first travel book opened with the immortal line, ‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.’ In this deeply funny and personal memoir, he travels back in time to explore the ordinary kid he once was, in the curious world of 1950s Middle America. It was a happy time, when almost everything was good for you, including DDT, cigarettes and nuclear fallout. This is a book about one boy’s growing up. But in Bryson’s hands, it becomes everyone’s story, one that will speak volumes – especially to anyone who has ever been young.
The Learning Game by Jonathan Smith: As a teacher myself, I found lots to relate to in Smith’s account of his teaching career. From the back cover – We are all caught up in our children’s lives. We all remember our own schooldays and, as parents, we watch anxiously as our children go through it. As we look at the world of teaching from the outside we wonder not only what is going on but what we can do to help. Jonathan Smith, a born teacher and writer, takes us on his personal journey from his first days as a pupil through to the challenges of his professional and private life on the other side of the desk. He makes us feels what it is like to be a teacher facing the joys and the battles of a class. How do you influence a child? He describes how you catch and stretch their minds. What difference can a teacher make, or how much damage can he do? Should clever pupils teach themselves? What works in the classroom world and what does not? And while influencing the young, how do you develop yourself, how do you teach yourself to keep another life and find that elusive balance? This is a compelling and combative story, warmly anecdotal in approach, yet as sharp in its views of the current debates as it is sensitive in its psychological understanding. From the first page to the last, and without a hint of jargon, this inspiring book rings true.
So, are memoirs and journals something you enjoy reading? If so which ones stand out for you?
This, for me, has been the trickiest choice so far in the 26 Books Challenge. Reading in general is a life-enhancing, life–improving activity as far as I’m concerned.
Life in general is improved by books
The reading of books has the potential to educate, inform and guide. And besides that, and perhaps even more importantly, books – be they non-fiction, poetry or fiction – have the potential to improve a reader’s emotional and mental health. And all of this applies from infancy to old age.
Throughout my reading life there have been books that have made life better. There have been books that have challenged and inspired me, and books that have reassured and comforted me.
Being more specific
I do realise I haven’t answered challenge number 21’s question yet. Like I said it’s difficult. I’ll start by narrowing it down. Let’s go non-fiction. I have a fairly large collection of guide books and phrase books which are a reflection of all the places I’ve travelled to over the last 40 years. All of them proved useful and contributed to the specific area of ‘getting to know planet Earth’.
I also have how-to and hobby books and these include ones on cookery and gardening. It’s debatable how much the cookery ones have improved the specific area of producing delicious meals. But I like to think that my abilities in the specific area of stopping the garden invading the house have been improved by reading gardening books.
A specific book
Okay, I know, I can’t keep avoiding the challenge. So I’ll stick with non-fiction and narrow the focus right down.
In every garden I’ve had (and there have been a few) one of the main joys has been watching the birds who come to visit. And going beyond the garden, seeing water fowl or sea birds or birds of prey while out walking has been an uplifting privilege. But without my, now (like myself) rather aged, copy of Collins Complete Guide toBritish Birds I wouldn’t know a wren from a sea eagle. It’s been my go-to reference book for many years. And, yes, it has improved the specific area of my life known as passing oneself of as an expert. Though most of the time I wing it. (see what I did there?)