The bibliomemoir is a thing. The bibliomemoir is an autobiographical account of a life told through a discussion of books. Books that mattered to the writer and are connected to key events in their life.
I have three bibliomemoirs on my bookshelf – Francis Spufford’s The child that books built, A life in reading, Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading, and Marilyn Robinson’s When I was a child, I read books. Not surprising purchases for an educator who spent a lot of time trying to encourage students to read. Each of these three books not only told me about their writers. They also invited me to recollect the books that I read as a child and why they were important to me. I learnt about books I hadn’t encountered and could perhaps follow up. I thought again about why children read and what they get from reading.
The bibliomemoir promotes and celebrates the importance of reading and the pleasures and provocations of deep engagement with texts.
There are loads of bibliomemoirs now in print. There’s a list of 100 over on good reads, and I am sure that there are truckloads more not in this selection. And other lists. While publishers are clearly chortling with glee at the emergence of yet another niche market, there is of course the question of why people buy and read books about other people’s reading. Why not just read the books for themselves?
Lucy Scholes, in an essay in the Financial Times, suggests that there’s an element of nosiness in being interested in other people’s reading. She says that a bibliomemoir is an open invitation to scour the shelves of another person’s library. She is prone to peering over someone’s shoulder in the Tube to get a glimpse of the screen of their e-reader, or immediately scanning bookshelves when I visit a friend’s house for the first time.
I am pretty sure that at least some of you recognise this nosy behaviour. And do it too. I certainly feel seen. I look at the book shelves in my colleague’s offices whenever I get a chance. I don’t mind being left for a moment or three while someone deals with a phone call or an urgent admin task if it means I get the opportunity to browse their book collection. I am always interested to see what books we have in common, as well as what books they have on their shelves that I have never heard of or never read. A quick flick through a book new to me before they get back is generally enough to decide whether this gap needs to be remedied.
And of course, seeing what people have on their book shelves does tell you something about their intellectual history. What could you tell about me from my shelves I hear you ask? My book shelves groan with books by and about Bourdieu as well as a heap of geographical and cultural studies titles. There’s also lots on research methods and academic writing. Pretty predictable. The collection of picture books about starting school and young adult fiction about schools is also not unexpected. There might be a few things that surprise, but not a lot. My books are a pretty good indication of my academic history and concerns.
However, reading shelves doesn’t do the work of the bibliomemoir. If you just looked at what I have read and what I am reading you won’t know which books matter most , when and why. You can’t see what are my “inner library”, as Pierre Bayard calls it. You need a bibliomemoir to find out what books really count.
I’m struggling to remember a book in my discipline that does the work of the bibliomemoir. There are some research memoirs which talk about books and some books about academic writing which talk about exemplary texts. And I can think of research projects which have examined what texts are used most in particular fields. But I suspect that the academic bibliomemoir is not yet a thing. (Although maybe some blogs do come closer than other text forms? )
Is there a place for the academic bibliomemoir? I’m not sure really, but I suspect that if loads of us like to look at office bookshelves, then there might be some place for the genre. If I asked you to talk about what books have been important to you in becoming a researcher I am sure that you would have answer. And it would be an answer in which life, research and texts were tangled together. So perhaps there is some room for the academic bibliomemoir after all. If it went beyond the idiosyncratic and narcissistic to something that was of more general interest.
Mmm. Something to think more about. And oh yes, I do think that I am possibly working myself into a new project!