We are living in what novelist Don DeLillo recently called "a period of empty millennial frenzy." The public seems to want to devour culture as if using the high-speed dubbing feature on a VCR. It is consumption without absorption, a simultaneous informational overload and reductionism that is directly at odds with the extended narrative literature provides. DeLillo says the novel has "lately grown desperate for attention" while Mario Vargas Llosa has recently complained that literature is no longer threatening and has called for a return of the subversive novel.
Though it demands more from the individual than any other artistic medium, literature possesses a spiritual and intellectual payoff that cannot be matched. Even the CIA recognizes this inherent truth: one of their operational manuals says, "One single book can significantly change the reader's attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium." Why then, is the death of literature a seemingly omnipresent proclamation?
The book today is the underdog; one must root for the written word. In this more marginal context, it may be that writers will be liberated and literature as an art form will flourish anew. Books can slip under the cultural radar, whereas the more popular mediums of television and film are subject to the whims of society's neo-puritanical mores and increasingly visceral tastes. The screen, both large and small, leaves nothing up to the imagination and their messages are usually soon forgotten. The ideas contained within a book burrow their way into the reader's soul, often reemerging surreptitiously years later.
Amidst the seemingly omnipresent proclamation of the death of literature, this past year has seen the ascendance of two non-fiction sub-genres: the memoir and the narrative non-fiction adventure tale. The former's most visible triumph was Frank McCourt's brilliant tale of growing up dirt poor in Ireland. Kathryn Harrison's memoir of her consentual incestuous relationship grabbed headlines, and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is still graces bestseller lists.
In this issue of Bold Type, we're focusing on a few memoirs which you may not have heard about, but which deserve to be heard through the din of this year's media onslaught. From fatherless childhood to a look back at feminism's heyday, the stories in this issue shed light on the human existence. Using sparkling personal detail, yet imbuing universal appeal, these authors brighten our lives by showing us their own.
Sign up for the Bold Type newsletter, and we'll let you know which authors will be contributing in the coming months.
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Bold Type Editor