Our Reading Lives

Bigger Than “Just a Book”

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

I’ve written before about my love of memoirs, and it’s hard for me to describe exactly why I love this genre so much — even harder to say why I love certain memoirs more than others. What I keep coming back to are those memoirs that are somehow “more” than memoir; whatever that means, really. When I say that, I think I mean those stories that feel bigger than one person — that speak to a larger societal issue/problem/idea, for lack of a better way to say it. Those stories that can barely be contained between the cover of the book, the ones that when you close them, you want to buy ALL THE COPIES and hand them out to everyone you know, being *that person* who says “you HAVE to read this.” Yeah, that one.

When I think of memoirs like that, the ones that come to mind are Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. I’m sure there are more, but late-pregnancy brain is getting the best of me. On some level, ALL books have something larger than them. They must speak to something larger, or they wouldn’t appeal to people. But there are some that do this in a way that feels very different. These are the books I’ve been drawn to, especially lately.

Before my son gets here, I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge, and there are some books that I’ve especially been loving – some memoir, but also fiction – that feel bigger to me. Here are some that I’ve been loving.


The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod. When Zolbrod was a small child, she was molested by a cousin. Her memoir, though, is much, much larger. She discusses her childhood, yes, and how the abuse affected her life and her own experience as a mother, but she also looks at how we as society frame abuse and trauma, as well as its effects. Through a careful mix of memoir and reportage/research, she unpacks the narrative we generally accept, and questions her own reactions, beliefs, and how she has incorporated the abuse into her life.


The Mommy Group, by Elizabeth Isadora Gold. A friend of mine gave this book to me, and I was hooked from the beginning. Gold writes about her journey to becoming a mother, and how she answered a post on a listserv in Park Slope for a “mom group,” and subsequently, found her people. The book covers several years, and follows a group of women – all very different – and the challenges they face as women and mothers. Although the book only looks at a very specific sample of women, the issues they faced spoke to much larger themes so prevalent today (like “mommy wars,” maternity leave, infertility, balancing work/parenting/marriage, body image, mental health, and much, much more).


This one’s a bit different – not a memoir, but a collection of short stories. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, by Kathleen Collins, comes out later this year, but I was lucky to get an advance copy of this. Collins passed away in 1988, but this collection is finally coming to light, and the stories touch on sexuality, gender, love, family, and race. The writing is practically visceral; straightforward and crisp, leaving you wanting more and thinking about what you just read.

What books feel bigger than books for you?