Our Reading Lives

The Surprise of Reading Books You Didn’t Think You’d Like

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Matt Grant

Staff Writer

Matt Grant is a Brooklyn-based writer, reader, and pop culture enthusiast. In addition to BookRiot, he is a staff writer at LitHub, where he writes about book news. Matt's work has appeared in Longreads, The Brooklyn Rail, Tor.com, Huffpost, and more. You can follow him online at www.mattgrantwriter.com or on Twitter: @mattgrantwriter

As a general rule, I’m not a huge fan of memoir. Unless someone has lived a particularly fascinating life, like living as a survivalist in Idaho (see: Educated), memoir is just not a genre that I would typically choose to read. There’s so much fiction to enjoy instead.

I’m especially wary of celebrity memoir. I’ve read a handful, and I usually come away thinking, “That was cool, but I’m not exactly sure why I  needed to know any of that about that particular famous person.”

To me, a lot of celebrity memoirs read like the author is trying to fulfill a contractual obligation to their publicist. Usually, they’re timed to the release of a new TV show or movie or something like that. I get that publishing is also a business. But the book feels more like a supplement to something else rather than a narrative in its own right. I wouldn’t say I’d read a celebrity memoir and come away thinking I’ve really gotten to know the person or had any insight into his or her life.

That was before I read Trevor Noah’s excellent Born a Crime

Until I picked it up, I was tepid on Trevor Noah, but not because of anything he’d specifically said or done. I stopped watching The Daily Show in college, long before Jon Stewart left, and just didn’t know that much about the new guy taking over. Sure, I’d seen a few clips and I thought he seemed like an incredibly smart and funny person. He just wasn’t in my orbit enough for me to form a really strong opinion one way or the other.

Born a Crime cover imageThen I went to an event with Noah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where they gave away copies of books by both authors. To be honest, I was mostly there to hear her, but he was a pleasant surprise. I found him to be just as charming and funny as he was on TV.

But I kept Born a Crime on my shelf for nearly two years. Because of my previous reaction to other celebrity memoirs, I kept putting it off. I even almost gave it away a few times without cracking it open. But then I’d had it so long that I finally thought, “Why not? I’ll give it a try.”

Boy, what I would have missed out on! I felt stupid for letting my preconceived notions about what it might contain based on other books I’d read influence my decision. It was really nothing like the other celebrity memoirs I’d read.

If you haven’t read Born a Crime, I think you should. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it contains fascinating stories about growing up in South Africa at the end of apartheid. But what’s so great about it is that the true story is really all Noah’s mother, and their relationship. Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah is an amazing South African black woman raising a mixed-race son, which was illegal to have at the time of Trevor’s birth. The book is a memoir, but it’s also a love letter to an amazing woman, a woman I will never know but I am glad to have met.

At the end of it, I felt like I knew Noah. I felt like we could hang out and get along. Which I know sounds kind of creepy, but the point is, I gained a ton of respect and understanding about who he is. And maybe that’s the point of memoir and maybe it isn’t, but for me at least, while reading it, I felt the same way I do when reading really good fiction – like I was hanging out with friends.

Born a Crime surprised me, because I had all but given up on memoir. But after it, I actually wanted to read more memoirs. If this was what really good memoir writing can be, then please give me more. It made me think of all of the other genres I may be missing out on because I’ve decided they’re “not my thing” or because of one bad experience with a book. Like the best of books, Born a Crime made me want to branch out and try other, newer, different things.

And that’s a great surprise, especially when it wasn’t something I went looking for.