Our big non-fiction project, where we are weeding out old, unused titles from the collection and simplifying the call numbers, is underway. But it is not starting as you might assume: I am beginning at almost the end – the 920s to be specific. For those of you who don’t have the Dewey decimal system memorized, biographies comprise the 920s, and there is a reason for my not starting at 001 in a very librarian-like approach.
One of the hot areas of non-fiction is memoirs – first person accounts written by the famous to the infamous to the virtually unknown; stories of victory and adversity, chronicles of their attempts to accomplish a feat. We’re in the process of creating a special section of autobiographies and memoirs as a complement to our biography collection. It is job one.
Thus, my time in our non-fiction stacks is spent lately in the biographies, separating out the memoirs for their own section and weeding out those that are outdated. It’s a very sobering task. Andy Warhol thought that someday everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes. That seems to apply to the past as well.
There are people represented in our collection who were household names at one time but who are almost unknown now. Consider these: Gary Coleman (child actor), David Kopay (football player), Jane Byrne (Chicago mayor), Anita Bryant (activist), Mike Douglas (talk show host), Myron Floren (Lawrence Welk’s accordionist), Werner Erhard (founder of “est”), Barbara Lee (congresswoman), Rosey Grier (sports celebrity), Sam Donaldson (television reporter) and Steve Allen (entertainer).
In some respect, I feel like the gravedigger in Hamlet, happening on a particular relic from the past and intoning, “Alas, poor Sam, I knew him; the star of the White House Press Corps.” And then there are others which I pull from the shelf; I can’t help but feel sorry for the trees that died so their stories could be printed.
Biographers understandably pay more attention to and generate more books about persons who are famous, two examples of which are the Kennedy family and Marilyn Monroe. There also are a surprising number of biographical works about Ernest Hemingway. I think he would be partly pleased by that – and at the same time, wonder why the damn fools couldn’t think of something original to write about.
Hemingway would appreciate the fact that biographies and memoirs are better written and more engaging now than in the past. They are much more than a chronological retelling of a person’s life. And memoirs can take a great many forms. You don’t need to be famous to have a story to tell – and those are the titles that seem to appeal to our patrons the most.
Watch for our new special section of memoirs and autobiographies to appear. It will be taking shape and expanding over the course of the next year as we add new titles. It’s going to be great!