Historically, biographies were the province of Great Men. Only army generals and presidents deserved a biography, and any lesser soul, say a minor aristocrat or a scientist, who attempted to publish his own story was mocked for hubris. Then the 20th century came along, and modern literature determined that everyone has a story that deserves to be told. Suddenly, peasants and farmers were fair game. But you still had to accomplish something noteworthy to publish a memoir – farmers weren’t supposed to speak for themselves.
Maybe it was Seinfeld’s show about nothing that convinced people the minutiae of someone else’s daily life could be interesting, but the 21st century rolled in with a new genre of memoirs by young unknowns. The first of these I read was Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress, about growing up in a progressive Jewish family in New York, and I somehow found myself identifying with the protagonist because, well, I grew up, too. These quarter-life memoirs were strangely appealing, and proved that you don’t even really need a story if the story teller has chops.
Although Iain Reid is younger than I am, he has published two memoirs, and is primarily known for – writing memoirs. I read them out of order. The Truth About Luck was an ersatz road trip with his grandma. Although they barely even left his apartment, the story of his getting to know this member of the Greatest Generation who used to bake him cookies was both endearing and engaging, and sometimes quite funny.
One Bird’s Choice is about moving back home for a year of semi-employment to regroup when the writing thing wasn’t really working out. Unlike many millennials, Reid is old enough to be embarrassed about living with his parents, so he can see the humor in the situation, and because he’s a good writer, he doesn’t spare himself at all. He can admit to playing to win in a hockey game against third graders, playing the role of village idiot at Christmas (“How are things at NASA? Did you know Iain is really good at whistling?) and the segment about horror movies and the spooky noise had me tormenting my family with, “Wait, you have to hear this.” Seriously, you should read the book just for this story.
One Bird’s Choice is generally funnier than The Truth About Luck, maybe because it’s easier to make fun of your eccentric, hobby-farming parents than your grandma who served in a World War. In Truth About Luck, Reid was relating life lessons from a woman who sucked the marrow out of life and used it to make her own luck. One Bird’s Choice might have been about second chances, or the family as safety net, or it could even have been an exploration of a generation that boomerangs. But it wasn’t really any of those things. The fact that Reid did eventually move back out on his own and finish a book was more of a postscript than a point. One Bird’s Choice read more like a series of anecdotes, the sort of stories you tell over drinks after dinner as you’re getting to know someone. It’s a lot harder to pull off this kind of storytelling, but fortunately Reid can do more than just whistle.
“You know you can request the library buy specific books, right?” said my neighbor, who holds the dream job of Buyer at the Seattle Public Library. “Usually, if someone goes to the trouble of requesting a book, unless it’s incredibly expensive or unavailable, we try to fill the request.”
No, I did not know that, because I have rarely searched for a book that SPL didn’t have. But within an hour, I had located the online purchase request form and submitted a request for Iain Reid’s debut memoir, One Bird’s Choice. A few weeks later, I got an email that said my hold had been delivered to my home branch. Yay, public library!