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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Let’s get personal (essays, that is)

Published: September 11, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

<i>PHOTO from Internet Source</i>

PHOTO from Internet Source

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” the old saying goes. If you read a lot of tabloids or watch TMZ then you’d probably agree. Even in the literary realm, a striking account of real events can make even the tallest of tales seem rather unextraordinary. What’s more remarkable is if the striking account is told first-hand, giving readers an insider’s glimpse into personal stories of interest and intrigue. When you take awesome nonfiction and first-person narrative, and shrink it down to maintain even the average college student’s attention span, you’ve got a personal essay.

Personal essays can be amazingly effective and great fun to read, when done right. Memoirs and autobiographies have been popularized on the book market for the past few years so it may be hard to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the just plain boring (really, have more authors just started living lives worthy of memoirs nowadays? One would think so, considering.) Here are a few of my “personal” favorite memoirists that stand out in the crowd:

David Foster-Wallace

Wallace was not merely a comedic genius. He was just a genius, plain and simple. This man killed himself about a year ago after struggling from years of depression, though for years he provided countless fans with side-splitting, bluntly honest humor. Any talk of his thousand-page novel “Infinite Jest” always mentions the same two things: its brilliant humor, and its ridiculously complex plot line. In his collection of essays, ” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wallace used the same wit and intelligence to discuss matters as seemingly trite as tennis playing and commercial cruise lines.

But his style—his remarkable gift at observing, plus the cynical, sarcastic commentary he provides throughout—will have you hanging on his every word. Foster is also known for his unique writing style; particularly his use of extensive footnotes (not kidding—some of those things literally go on for pages. Even his footnotes had footnotes at some points). This is not so much of a light read since you may have to tackle it with dictionary in hand, but it is well worth it.

Augusten Burroughs

Burroughs is the author of the acclaimed memoir-turned failed movie “Running with Scissors.” After reading the autobiographical portrayal of his wacked-out childhood, growing up in the rule-free house of his mother’s shrink, you’ll understand why he can provide such “unique” perspectives on life. These perspectives are often painfully honest, and accordingly, very funny.

Young Burroughs is neurotic at times though loveable, in a kind of sick, twisted, child-reject way—his OCD-like obsession with hair and advertising make clear of that. If you want to know what a “masturbatorium” is and you like reading about families more screwed up than your own, don’t watch the movie, read the memoir. Or if you don’t have time for a full-length book, the essays in his collection “Magical Thinking” are just as good.

<i>PHOTO FROM Internet Source</i>

PHOTO FROM Internet Source

David Sedaris

When you get through the first couple pages of “Me Talk Pretty One Day” you may question if what you’re reading is really humor. Not soon after, when you are silently chuckling to yourself over something astoundingly relatable, you not only appreciate his writing but you really start to like the guy. He is funny without being over the top and he manages to write about everything from speech impediments to drug addiction while being humble and witty at the same time. Sedaris works wonders with the art of essay, which includes those in his latest collection “When You Are Engulfed In Flames.”