Memoir as Medicine: Recommended Recollections for Summer Reading

I love book lists.  On the other hand, I don’t. I love them because I’m always looking for my next read, but lists of “must-reads” can also bring me down. There’s never enough time to read everything I want to; I’m still missing out on the “essential reads” of a lifetime and I don’t want to hear how many books someone else has read that I haven’t.  Know what I mean?

A recent podcast conversation helped me recover my book list joy.  The angle on Episode 123 of The Simple Show is unique and perfect: books as social self care. In this episode, the third of a four-part social self care series, Tsh Oxenrider and Haley Stewart explain “why infusing our lives with good stories makes us better people, and therefore, better members of society.”

Social self-care? Yes. Books open us to others, broadening our souls and sense of our own place within the human community.  

Stewart goes further, offering an e-book entitled The Literary Medicine Cabinet with lists to fulfill every literary longing. All book lovers know we read to grow and heal the soul.

roman-kraft-220246-unsplashA book list should never be seen as a to-do list, but an invitation to investigate the medicine cabinet in someone else’s soul.  You might discover something you didn’t know you needed until you learned that someone else found it helpful.

I offer the following list of  recommended recollections in that spirit.  I read at least one memoir a year to expand my frame of reference in this complicated world, to inspire my faith or to better understand and relate to people who are different from me.  This list gathers of few of my favorites.

They don’t all line out with theological orthodoxy but have been selected for literary quality, diverse voices and page turnability. If you’re looking for nonfiction narrators inviting you to explore their memories and meaning-making, here’s a short list of memoirs you may find medicinal.

1.  Dietrich von Hildebrand’s My Battle Against Hitler:  Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich

Memoir as Medicine_von Hildebrand

There’s more than one way to join the resistance.  Dietrich von Hildebrand, with “the soul of a lion,” wielded intellect and integrity with a power that wasn’t lost on Adolph Hitler, who considered him his number one enemy. My Battle with Hitler, a memoir written at the end of von Hildebrand’s life, includes (thanks to editor John Crosby) articles and journal entries taking us straight to the front lines.  While most of von Hildebrand’s countrymen were falling for National Socialism’s zealous promises, he was dissecting its dangers, writing against violence and racism in hopes of opening their eyes. The Nazis blacklisted von Hildebrand very early (1921), and he fled to Austria two years later as Hilter began gaining power.  This book reveals the heartwrenching struggle of a man whose vision, aided by uncompromising faith, penetrated the truth long before most of his peers did. Forced to flee across Europe and finally arrive in America, von Hildebrand stands as a shining example: a lover of beauty and philosophy and a man of dignity and courage.

2.  Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Memoir as Medicine_Dillard

If you’d rather soak up nature’s beauty this summer and save reads of strife and danger for winter’s dark months, I recommend Annie Dillard’s  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at once a meditation on the the mysteries of natural world and the mysteries of the human heart. “We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery,” she begins. Pilgrim takes place over the course of one year at Tinker Creek, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  Dillard’s prose is exquisite, never a wasted word.  She is a writer of presence, pulling you into a place where the line between the immanent and the transcendent is as thin as a dragonfly’s wing.  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek leads the reader into silent wonder at the Mystery behind all mysteries. Dillard is a master who can make you love a field guide and a prayer book with equal enthusiasm, unlocking as each does in its own way, the pathway to the Divine.

3.  Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain

Memoir as Medicine_Merton

December 18 will mark the 50th anniversary of Thomas Merton‘s death, so if you haven’t read this classic conversion story, this is a good occasion to pick it up.  From Annie Dillard to Bishop Robert BarronThe Seven Storey Mountain is a favorite read of many great readers.  It is a love story in a way, as Merton takes us on his soul’s journey from worldly man of arts and letters to a conversion to Catholicism (picking up Étienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy in New York’s Scribner’s book store was a turning point) and finally to Trappist monk.  In the monastery, Merton developed his craft, becoming a contemplative writer of deep beauty.  Merton is a complex personality who continued to engage the world as a contemplative.  His writings speak pointedly to our times 50 years after his passing.

4.  Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory

Memoir as Medicine_Rodriguez

This is an ornery, beautiful book.  Rodriguez fearlessly unveils his inner journey from childhood as a Mexican-American immigrant knowing only 50 English words to a man of erudition, studying at Stanford, Columbia and Berkley.  Rodriguez is no people pleaser.  He reveals the crushing complexity of living in two cultures, a misfit in each one. He lets you into his heart, wounded by racism, affirmative action, good intentions and familial misunderstanding. Written in 1982, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez is a poignant read for today’s political climate–but not if you’re looking for talking points. You must give up your comfortable expectations and political correctness (whether of the left or the right) if you’re going to read Rodriguez. He’s nobody’s posterboy and that makes his work more than medicinal.  Hunger of Memory challenges and leaves us hungry for more.

5.  Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind

Memoir as Medison_Jamison

“I did not wake up one day to find myself mad. Life should be so simple.” The stigma associated with mental illness makes An Unquiet Mind:  A Memoir of Moods and Madness important for anyone wishing to cross the border of understanding. Jamison is uniquely qualified to write about mental illness. She suffers from bipolar disorder and is also one of the nation’s most respected researchers and clinical psychologists.  But you don’t read this book for technical information. Jamison is a writer of rare powers. You read her for the lyrical beauty of her prose. You read her to understand mental illness from the inside, to be with her when she feels her body is “uninhabitable, raging and weeping and full of destruction and wild energy gone amok.” Read An Unquiet Mind to learn to love better and to recognize the humanity in all who suffer in ways you cannot understand.


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For more summer reading possibilities, see Sparrowfare’s Five Standouts from a Reading Year.

Order Haley Stewart’s A Literary Medicine Cabinet from her website Carrots for Michelmas.  Her new book, The Grace of Enough:  Pursuing Less and Living More in a Throwaway Culture is available for preorder on Amazon.  I just ordered mine.

Memoir as Medicine_Karr

Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir is a fantastic book about memoir, teaching and the writing life.  It contains a fabulous list of memoirs from an expert who dedicated her life to reading them, teaching them and writing them. It’s a gritty, up-front look at her own struggle to live authentically as a poor kid from Texas who never felt good enough in the highbrow, academic world she entered by her own smarts and ambition. Karr’s advice on the pitfalls of writing from the false self is priceless.  She leads you to Merton.  She helps you tell the truth about yourself.

Photos by and Roman Kraft on Unsplash.

What memoirs live in the medicine cabinet of your soul?  I’m always looking for my next great read.  I’d love to hear from you.