I’ve recently been reading a lot of memoirs.

This is a genre I have never really dug into before, for no particular reason. I’ve really enjoyed each of these recent books, but I spent some time wondering about how valuable they are to my self-education.

I’ve written in the past about how unreliable history can be, so I can’t help thinking at least some of the past recounted in these books has been misremembered or misreported, intentionally or not. Given that, how didactic can a memoir be?

My current perspective is that the value of this reading, beyond being a part of my general effort to maximize good inputs, is in capturing useful narratives. In that post on historical accuracy , I discussed the power of narratives. In short, our minds are prone to find stories in the facts, even if no story objectively exists. We can also work this in reverse: beginning with a good narrative, it is possible to see a set of similar facts turning out the same way.

For example, we can read success stories, note that we have things in common with the successful people, and forecast success in our own future. Even with a proper perspective on chance, just knowing a thing is possible makes it more possible.1 At the very least, it is motivational.

Having decided their utility, I can now read memoirs in peace. A part of me2 wishes that entertainment value alone would have been enough for me, but I am just as God made me.

Programming note: I wrote and published…er…thought I published this last night, so I am still on track. Kinda.

  1. Beyond what I talk about in this linked post, there is an extension of this general principle to the creative power of just knowing something has been done. For example, while it is debatable whether, or how much benefit espionage had on the Soviet Union development of nuclear weapons, there is a school of thought that once the Soviet scientists knew the Americans had made a bomb—that it was for sure possible—their own development accelerated. Other examples abound in history. ↩︎

  2. A pretty large part ↩︎