'Devotion', 'Lit' and 'Commitment': Memoirs as the New Neighbor

03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Daniel Mendelsohn, in reviewing Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History, states that modern memoirs "fill a gap created by the gradual displacement of the novel from its once central position in literacy culture." (The New Yorker, January 25, 2010). I have a different theory as to the current popularity of memoirs. Memoirs are the replacement not of the novel but of the neighbor.

As we live less and less in a world allowing the time, geography, or circumstances of one-on-one, face-to-face communication, when something as simple as having coffee with the neighbor has to be scheduled around gym/work/store, we have fewer opportunities for intimacy. We have no one with whom to gossip about ourselves and about others. Gossip, which is a discussion of behavioral choices that leads to a consensus on appropriate behavior, is an important venue for securing life advice. Without an avenue for openhearted gossip, how can we debate the issues of our lives, reach some consensus, and move on? Memoirs allow us to get intimate with another person, to discover secrets (gossip) and to learn from that person's own discussion of her life issues. We read memoirs for the gossip and for the lessons.

Book clubs are also a stand-in for the chat over the garden fence but a memoir is more intimate; it is one person revealing to another person private and important secrets. Everyone loves a secret, even when the secret gets out. Memoirs pack the double-whammy of shared secrets plus advice, overt or hidden, on how to live life well.

I offer up two recent memoirs and one memoir soon to hit bookstores in support of my theory that the search for a good neighbor drives the popularity of the modern memoir. Lit is Mary's Karr latest installment in her very colorful life. It takes us through her struggle with alcoholism and motherhood and out the other end to sobriety and Catholicism. We are reassured by her (drunk or Catholic, she is a loving mother), we are sympathetic (she really does have problems), and we are thoroughly entranced by writing that is more poetry than prose, and more honest than not. She is our artistic neighbor, the one who feeds all the birds and smokes like a chimney and what we learn from her is never to marry a hunk, or a family, or an idea. Find a mate you enjoy talking to, making love to and arguing with. In a successful marriage you do all those things often, so make it palatable. Thanks, Mary and let's move on to neighbor number two.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the neighbor everyone loves to hate (why is she so popular?) but that doesn't stop her from charming the pants off all those women who drove Eat Pray Love to the top of the charts. From the looks of it, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Gilbert's latest round of memories will satisfy all those readers and probably a whole bunch of new ones. Her stories are never boring, usually revealing and almost always manage to reach a conclusion. Advice gleaned this time around from Gilbert? Do it already, tie the knot! Gilbert did all the research into marriage (no matter that most of it is not relevant) and she took the plunge. Now slews of women waiting to make the big leap into marriage can jump with joy. Okay, so there is not a huge demographic of women not wanting to get married; at least all of us who did now know we weren't totally wrong. Thanks so much, Liz, and on to neighbor number three.

Dani Shapiro is the neighbor we all really might have. She is down to earth but wears heels, she does Yoga but also does spas, she is well informed but no world traveler and she is straightforward and honest but certainly no poet. In her latest memoir, Devotion, Shapiro lays out the mid-life crisis of her life, anxiety beset by a fear of "is this all there is" (yes, that midlife crisis). She uses her considerable skills at obsessing over and tackling problems to rediscover Judaism, reconnect with her deceased father and re-center herself firmly in living and enjoying life. I had a comfortable time listening to Shapiro gab away over the kitchen table, and was sincerely moved by her moments of deep fear, anguish, and sorrow.

I'm not sure I got any great advice out of my heart-to-heart with Devotion but maybe that proves how well Shapiro's memoir works as a stand-in for a neighbor. (Would we really want Dr. Phil living next door?) She is certainly someone I'd have over again, for more coffee and more kibitzing. I might invite over another stand-in, Jennifer Anne Moses and her memoir Bagels and Grits, which is all about rediscovering her Judaism in her mid-forties (and working in an AIDS shelter saturated with believers in Jesus). If Shapiro thinks it is hard to find Jews in Connecticut, she should hear what Moses has to say about Louisiana. Both women are smart and charming and sincere: I think we all might really get along.