Books of the Decade: What were we reading at the start of the millennium?

About the exhibit: September 12th, 2011 to November 1st, 2011

It was a decade marked by trauma and worry. The terrorist attacks on 9/11/01 overshadowed every other event of the decade, and changed almost every aspect of our lives. We searched for comfort and we searched for meaning. Our need for answers brought us the first best seller from the U.S. Government Printing Office, and our skepticism changed the way we read a memoir. We found solace in the woes of others, hope in the resilience of the planet, and strength in the heroic adventures of a teenaged wizard. Here’s a sample of what we were reading.

What we were reading

Trends in Reading and Publishing


Graphic novels now address such adult topics as war, child abuse and HIV/Aids.

persepolis drifting“Once dismissed as ephemeral trash – mere kid’s stuff – graphic novels now win literary prizes and appear on the New York Times bestseller list. They are also finding their way into classrooms and school and public libraries, where they share shelf space with more traditional forms of literature.” – Graphic Novels and Comic Books,vii.


year angela heartbreakingThe Misery Memoir hits a Popularity Peak: The British magazine The Bookseller allegedly coined the term “misery memoir” to describe a personal narrative chronicling an author’s emotional and psychological trauma as he or she overcame illness, addiction, grief, or personal demons. Though the genre had its origins in the late 1990s with such works as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the first decade saw it surge dramatically in popularity, a phenomenon which may have had its roots in the trauma of 9/11, which created a desire to share the sorrows of others and an appetite for inspirational stories of ordinary people conquering adversity.

Typically written in a spare, journalistic style, few works in this genre achieved any kind of literary credibility. Those that did, like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, transcended the genre through penetrating insight and hauntingly eloquent prose.


three millionsFalls from Grace: Tea Cups in Little Pieces — In his own memoir, Palimpsest, Gore Vidal wrote: “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Unfortunately, in the case of two of the most acclaimed memoirs of the decade, it was less about the stories the authors remembered than about the stories they thought would sell. The controversies surrounding two of the most popular memoirs of the decade disillusioned readers and changed the rules of genre.


About Fondren Exhibits:

The Fondren Exhibits Committee is charged with providing educational exhibits for the SMU community that showcase special events, academic areas and individuals associated with the SMU campus.

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