I have not read a single memoir by a former Trump official. And don’t plan to. I have not read a single memoir from the Obama presidency either, for that matter, including the first volume of the former president’s memoir, “A Promised Land.” (Do we really need a second?)
The reason is not a lack of interest in memoirs. I happen to like memories. alot I have read a surprising number of them, have taught a course about “the art of the memoir,” and have even written my own memoir (published last month). But political memoirs are usually the worst of the genre, the lowest rung on the memoir ladder.
There can be exceptions. Ulysses S. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs” is certainly one. It’s a multi-volume account of Grant’s military experience in both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. Mark Twain compared Grant’s memoir to Caesar’s “Commentaries” though, as the publisher, Twain may have written that with the thought of boosting sales.
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Typically, the political memoir is an exercise either in getting even or self-justification. Consider Omarosa Manigault Newman’s “Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House.” John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir” probably fits this description too, as does William Barr’s more recent “One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of An Attorney General.” In fact, I can’t think of one recent political memoir that might escape this criticism, including Obama’s.
The Old Testament book of Nehemiah has been described as the first political memoir in history, and it’s arguably better than most, as the genre goes. Still, Nehemiah describes himself throughout in some very flattering terms. Was he really that good? (Read it and judge for yourself.)
A memoir is a tough book to write, which hasn’t stopped a lot of people from trying. Search books on Amazon, and depending on your search terms, you may turn up as many as two hundred thousand titles that count as memoirs.
Some people actually have stories to tell about their lives and experiences which would be important and even helpful to hear. St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” for example, tells a story that has shaped the way most people today, religious or not, think of personal salvation. Suffering, as Augustine movingly explains it, can be followed by redemption, the startling transformation of a human life. This is the narrative arc of most personal memoirs today.
But memoirs can be tricky, and not everyone should write one. As Neal Genzlinger, a frequent book reviewer for the New York Times, once put it, “That you had parents and a childhood does not qualify you to write a memoir.” Ideally, memoirs should tell a story that hasn’t already been told, and by now most stories have been told many times.
Another problem with memories is that memory can be tricky. Scientists who study memory like to say, not that memory is unreliable, but rather that memory is constructed. Memories are formed, stored, and then change over time, usually to suit changes in our circumstances. Ask a sibling how she remembers an important incident from childhood, and you might be surprised at how differently she describes what happened. Our memories tend to serve our purposes at any given moment.
So why do we tell our stories? Because most of us have stories to tell. Most of us, especially those of us who have lived a few decades, have had some remarkable and unforgettable experiences. I’ve had a few. Don’t get me started. The problem is, not many young people want to pull up a chair and listen to us tell the story of our lives. Years after my grandfather’s death, though, I wish I had asked him questions about his immigrant experience about him, about coming to this country on a steam ship with little more than the clothes he was wearing. I’m certain he would have told me his story about him, but at the time I was interested in other things, seemingly more important things.
It’s hard to imagine that, years from now, anyone beyond a few historians and biographers will read the memoirs being written about the Trump White House. Those books made some money for their authors and might have altered our perceptions of their work during a tumultuous time in American history. But as for any other lasting value? I doubt it.
The memoirs I want to read — the ones I look forward to reading — are those like Augustine’s, which in the end are not about him, but about all of us, how we were unexpectedly changed and made whole.
— Douglas Brouwer is a resident of Park Township. Previous columns and other writing can be found at dougsblog.substack.com.