I enjoy wondering about the lives of others. I find nothing as entertaining as catching half a conversation when I’m out to dinner or standing in line at the grocery store. I have spent large quantities of my life people watching. When the weather gets warm enough for night-time walking, I like hearing what people are watching on TV or half of a phone conversation as I pass by. I know this makes me sound like a terrible person, and totally creepy, but I promise you I’m not. What I love above all these things, though, is a great biography or memoir to take me into the life of another. I know, I know. There has been a flood of let-me-tell-you-my-horribly-boring-or-downright-lie-life-story memoirs on the market and some biographies are so dry they make you cough dust. But like with most things, in with all the trash are the treasures.
I most recently finished reading Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier. I’m usually a speedy reader, but with biographies, or really, non-fiction in general, I take my time and work my way through it. Daphne du Maurier took me longer than usual. Parts of her life broke my heart and brought me down. I needed to take a few days of space before I could pick it up again. And this is one of the reasons why I think EVERYONE should read biographies. It’s not just about being nosy. It’s about being dropped into another persons world for a little while.
D du M was a wonderful writer and woman, a troubled soul, a wife, lover, friend, daughter and sister. I think the power of reading about the life of another is that it helps to ground us in our own present life. D du M lived her entire life with a “boy-in-the-box” inside her. Only in one relationship in her life was she able to truly be herself and let the boy out of the box. Sadly, it was not her relationship with her husband. This made me break apart inside. But it reminded me that living in a society that (sometimes) lets a person be who they really are is a relatively new thing. And it made me grateful. It made me thank the stars that I won’t necessarily have to choose between being a wife/mother and work. That having a career won’t necessarily turn my marriage on its head. That while society and the culture I live in have ideas about who I should be and what I should do, I have a greater freedom to be me. This is the power of biography. In reading about the life of another, we can learn more about ourselves and the world we live in.
Please don’t take my boy-in-the-box anecdote about D du M as the only thing to be found in her biography. She had a childhood filled with magic and confusion. Her father’s best friends were writers and thinkers and notables like J.M. Barrie. She was a fiercely shy free spirit that struggled to find a place to belong. A free spirit that married a military man. She wrote astounding pieces of fiction and non-fiction and found that without the act of writing, her full life was nothing she wanted or could handle. She had a rich life of travel and friends and letter writing. The story of her life moved me.
So the next time you’re looking for something to read, give a biography or memoir a try. See what happens when you’re transported into another time and place and life. I’d love to think that I’m not the only one who feels this way.