Well-readhead: The memoir boom
When tennis legend Andre Agassi won Wimbledon for the first time, he telephoned his father afterwards.
“Pops? It’s me! Can you hear me? What’d you think?” Agassi asked him.
There was silence at the other end of the phone.
“Pops?” said Agassi.
Finally his father spoke.
“You had no business losing that fourth set,” his father replied.
To say Agassi’s father was a harsh taskmaster is an understatement.
Agassi’s memoir Open reveals that virtually from Andre’s birth, his father was determined that Andre would be not merely a great tennis player but the best ever.
Even as a seven year old, Agassi was expected to practice hours every day in the blazing Nevada sun while his father screamed at him if he hit balls into the net or out of the court.
When Andre failed to place in a tournament and instead received a trophy for sportsmanship, his father smashed it onto the ground. It’s no surprise to learn that his father caused Agassi to hate tennis, even at the peak of his career as a multiple grand slam winner. Andre points out repeatedly in Open that he didn’t have a love-hate relationship with the game. It was a hate-hate relationship, right to the end.
Agassi’s memoir is riveting (it no doubt helps that it was ghost written by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist). But what makes it work so well – and in fact the secret to any great memoir – is Agassi’s utter frankness.
The book opens with his preparation for the 2006 US Open, during which he retired after losing in the third round. Agassi wakes up on the day of one of his final matches, lying on the floor beside his bed:
I moved from the bed to the floor in the middle of the night. I do that most nights. Better for my back. Too many hours on a soft mattress causes agony. I count to three, then start the long difficult process of standing.
With a cough, a groan, I roll onto my side, then curl into the foetal position, then flip over onto my stomach. Now I wait, and wait, for the blood to start pumping. I’m a young man, relatively speaking. Thirty-six. But I wake as if ninety-six.
After three decades of sprinting, stopping on a dime, jumping high and landing hard, my body no longer feels like my body, especially in the morning … I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.
Agassi’s autobiography lands at a time when memoirs are enjoying a boom. The New Yorker recently noted that for many years, memoirs were the ‘black sheep of the literary family’, written by people spilling family secrets and embarrassing friends in the pursuit of a moment in the spotlight.
Evelyn Waugh once wrote that “Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography.”
Tell that to Elizabeth Gilbert, Mitch Albom or Barack Obama, who’ve made fortunes from Eat, Pray, Love, Tuesdays with Morrie and Dreams From My Father. On the current New York Times bestseller list, five of the top ten paperback non-fiction books are memoirs. On the hardcover list, it’s three from ten.
Of recent memoirs, I was quite partial to The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, about her deeply dysfunctional but quite brilliant parents. It was impossible to put the book down after this opening line:
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.
But the gold standard in autobiographical opening lines has to be David Niven’s 1971 effort in The Moon’s a Balloon:
Nessie, when I first saw her, was seventeen years old, honey-blonde, pretty rather than beautiful, the owner of a voluptuous but somehow innocent body and a pair of legs that went on forever. She was a Piccadilly whore. I was a fourteen-year-old heterosexual schoolboy and I met her thanks to my stepfather.
For this week’s Well-readhead, I’d recommend you lay your hands on a copy of either the Agassi or Niven books.
But failing that, here are this fortnight’s ten interesting things to read, watch or listen to:
1. The New Yorker examines what the memoir boom tell us about ourselves
2. This article by supermodel Paulina Porizkova, discussing her anxiety about being ‘a celebrity past her prime’, is surprisingly engaging, perhaps because like Andre Agassi, she is disarmingly frank
3. Foreign Policy magazine takes a look at ‘the honey trap’, the oldest trick in the espionage book.
4. Time magazine asks do animals commit suicide?
5. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will know the opening credits to Diff’rent Strokes with its catchy theme tune http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfTrdO7BqV0 Now take a look at how ominous it looks with different music. This came via ABC Radio Host Richard Fidler, who’s on twitter @rfidler
7. The Atlantic on the pain and struggles of dealing with an ageing parent
8. Will David Cameron win the British election for the Tories? The polls are narrowing and it’s unexpectedly turning into a race despite the British Labour government’s unpopularity. Vanity Fair profiles David Cameron who it says has re-invented his party by ‘airbrushing out all divisions’.
9. The LA Times profiles Michael Goto, the guy who’s responsible for making the emergency room scenes in medical dramas look convincing story (via @nadine_lee on twitter)
10. Ted Danson, from “Cheers” to “Damages” comes across in this New York Times profile as a remarkably humble guy.
Leigh Sales is the anchor of Lateline on ABC1. You can follow her on twitter via @leighsales
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