Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Twain’s advice was rather nice

On the “bizarre family heirlooms” section of our bookshelves (surprisingly large) is an advice book for what might today be known as teenagers, but in 1950 were referred to as young ladies.

It is called The Years of Grace, which is an optimistic take on adolescence, and not at all how I remember the teenage years. But I guess they couldn’t call it Years of Misery, Bad Behaviour and Wildly Inappropriate Clothing.

Anyway, this book is full of helpful advice on important aspects of life, such as deportment, personal hygiene, leisure activities and social skills. It is fairly modern in its views, encouraging girls to travel, to be public-spirited, and to learn to appreciate sport. When watching a game with one’s brother and his friends, “Don’t be content to be the least knowledgeable girl in the party.”

It gives guidance for careers, noting that “Her Majesty’s Civil Service is now freely open to women”, and advising “Don’t simply be a shorthand typist. Be a secretary.” Teaching is recommended only if you have the requisite physical and mental toughness to deal with supervisors, and with parents who don’t see the value of educating girls. “You must be prepared to suffer fools gladly – and the fools will not always be part of your class.” There are instructions on how to avoid halitosis which “together with B.O. is lethal to glamour”. No arguing with that.

Rather more subversive advice comes from Mark Twain in his Advice to Little Girls, which has recently been re-released with new illustrations. It is not an advice book; rather, a tongue-in-cheek short story for adult readers. Each of the helpful pointers starts off as a rather reasonable-sounding piece of advice, but there is an outrageous twist in the tale. Here are a few:

“If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.”

In the event that you have only a rag doll stuffed with sawdust and a playmate has a better toy, “You ought not to attempt a forcible swap with her, unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.”

“Good girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offence. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.”

Twain was fascinated by young girls. After his wife’s death, he was lonely. “I had reached the grandpapa stage of life and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren,” he said. At the age of 72, he began collecting surrogate granddaughters between the ages of 10 and 16, “dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears”. He called them his Angel Fish, and nicknamed the group The Aquarium. He even gave them little lapel pins, featuring angel fish. He corresponded with the girls and they, with their parents, sometimes visited him in New York.

We who have had our idealism and innocence destroyed by the likes of Jimmy Savile, Michael Jackson and a host of priests and scoutmasters might find this all a bit suspicious. Despite our cynical modern reservations, it all seems innocent and above board. That was a kinder, gentler era.

I would advise contemporary young women to be cautious of elderly celebrities bearing gifts.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

Not all prose is deathless

As part of my plan to be a better, neater, more organised person, my bookshelves have come in for some culling.

Unfortunately, no one else in my family gives a fig about being better, neater or more organised. Nor, presumably, do they have a morbid fear of ending up as one of those old ladies who dies because the path to her front door has been blocked by a stack of two decades’ worth of the New York Times, and is only discovered three weeks later, by which time choice bits of her have been eaten by her 15 cats. But I digress.

My point is that no one gives a toss about the teetering piles of books in strange corners of our house, so no one really helps with the clearing.

The total contribution of assistance from my family members came from my son who spotted me stacking 25-year-old National Geographic magazines in a crate and exclaimed: “What are you doing? You can’t get rid of those!”

I pointed out that the only time I’d seen one – I think it was the one on Newfoundland – removed from the shelf in the last six or seven years was when someone used it to usher a bee out of the window.

To which he replied loftily, “It’s about nostalgia,” which is something I understand, so we compromised and he returned a few choice issues to the shelf, where they will still be, no doubt, unopened when I am being eaten by my cat.

So, how to cull one’s book collection?

The kids’ books are easy – a few precious ones are kept for posterity/ sentimentality, the rest given to a local school library. Novels are subject to natural attrition. They are put into broad circulation at the book club, taken on holidays and left there, or passed on to friends.

It’s the non-fiction books that stick around like so many dusty old pedants at the history department cocktail party, muttering into their gins.

You’d think many of them might be useful for reference at some point, but it was very obvious in the book clear-out that nothing ages as fast as the trendy non-fiction book of the year. Chris Anderson’s Free was all the rage some years back.

I reviewed it at the time, and would often hold forth at dinner parties about its central tenets – for instance, that in the digital era, many services, products, information and such, will be free. It seemed so interesting, then. And so obvious now.

Malcolm Gladwell books age faster than child starlets, and it’s just as hard to remember what was so charmingly fresh and precocious about them a couple of years ago. If someone these days starts in on the 10000 hours rule, claiming that the key to success in any field is practising a specific task for a total of around 10000 hours (which, let’s face it, is simultaneously startlingly self-evident and also total nonsense), I want to lob a copy of Outliers at their head. Instead, I toss it into the “to go” box and move on to the next shelf.

The only thing that stands the test of time less well than the hot non-fiction best-seller of the year, is a biography of Kgalema Motlanthe. Just a few short months ago it was the inside story of the man who would be king. Post-Mangaung it’s the story of, you know, that guy who was President for a bit? Yes, him.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

Browse this, or peruse it if you prefer

‘You should write something about the thesaurus,” suggested my friend Rosalind sternly, or, if you prefer, severely. It’s true that thesauri are interesting.

It’s true that thesauri are interesting. Indeed, perhaps fascinating or engaging; also, useful, handy, serviceable, or even advantageous.

Rosalind is a good buddy, chum, cohort, companion and playmate, and provides helpful suggestions for this column. The thesaurus – the word comes from the Greek for “treasury” – is indeed a treasure, and would make an excellent topic for a bit of a chat.

Serious word-nerds hanker after the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED). Read the reviews, if you want to see literati get really steamed up. One said it made him “gasp out loud with amazement, several times”.

This wonderful compendium contains 920000 words and meanings, including words from the Thesaurus of Old English (it took so long to compile – 45 years apparently – that some of the Old English words were just about current when the process started). The thesaurus is organised by meaning, rather than alphabetically, and shows not just synonyms, but also related words.

Because synonyms are arranged chronologically, oldest first, you can see the development of the language. It’s also handy for writers of historical fiction. Now you can find out which particular word the 18th century barmaid in your bodice-ripper would have used. So you don’t have her saying: “Fancy a bevvy before you off to the chipper, luv?” or some such.

Steven Poole, writing in The Guardian, posited that this thesaurus, published in late 2009, might be one of the last great printed works of reference. He talks of the “serendipitous finds” that delight the user of the printed work and suggests that simply typing a word into a search bar wouldn’t allow one to be side-tracked in such a manner.

In many ways, a work of reference is ideally suited to the digital format. A dictionary, thesaurus or encyclopedia can be continuously updated when new information comes to hand. It is unconstrained by the cost of printing, or the amount of space one might reasonably have on one’s bookshelf.

It can sit on the desktop of your Macbook, ready to do service at a moment’s notice. You can even highlight and double click a word in the document you are working on, and the operating system will helpfully give you a synonym on the fly. But the joy of “flipping though” and being deliciously distracted from one’s intended purpose, is lost.

In my continuing efforts to find time-wasting delights on your behalf, I was fortunate to come across all sorts of interesting bits and pieces on the HTOED. Marc Alexander and Kate Wild, of the University of Glasgow, undertook a case study of words relating to men, women and children, a fascinating insight into the evolution of ideas of masculinity and femininity. Tea-body, petticoatery, the skirt, bird, and dame, being a few examples that illustrate how women were viewed through the ages. Children were often named for small animals – chick, kid, tadpole and tiddler.

Only relatively recently did we differentiate between children of different ages or stages, with words like toddler and pre-adolescent and, in our own time, “tweens” – marketing-speak for bigger kids who are not yet teens. Their most important feature, it seems, is that they have access to pocket money and are thus welcomed as fully fledged, if slightly short, members of the consumer culture. Rather ghastly (shocking, distressing, grim), really.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

Real life drama

What is your first thought when you narrowly escape prison? Or are released from captivity? Or contract a rare disease? When tragedy strikes, and you are struggling with unbearable sadness and loss, what do you do? Negotiate a book deal, of course. And be quick about it. Real life drama is a popular genre, and real life crime in particular.

John Kercher, the British man whose daughter, Meredith, was murdered in Italy in 2007, has a book coming out this month. Meredith: Our Daughter’s Murder and the Heartbreaking Quest for the Truth is apparently a father’s story of loss and the quest for justice for his daughter whose death was overshadowed by legal craziness.

John Kercher is not the only author of Meredith’s story. In the other corner, Amanda Knox – Kercher’s American roommate who stood trial for her murder, was convicted, and then exonerated – is working on her own book about her experiences and her side of the story. HarperCollins apparently coughed up $4 million for it.

I hardly need mention, but just in case you didn’t think of it yourself, let it be known that Raffaele Sollecito, Knox’s Italian ex, who was also convicted and then released has – yup, you guessed it – a book coming out too. Before that particular bandwagon leaves town, at least 8 other books have been written by authors and journalists, judging by a cursory glance at Google. The public just can’t seem to get enough of this tragic story, so it’s likely that at least some of these will be money-spinners.

Another real-life crime that generated a zillion articles and a number of books, was the disappearance of little Madeline McCann. The book Madeleine, was written by the child’s mother, Kate McCann, to raise funds for the search for her daughter, and to help keep her story and her face in the public domain so that she would be found. An understandable motivation. Can’t say the same for the detective who was booted off the case in Portugal. According to the UK’s Daily Record, his book The Truth About The Lie was a bestseller in his home country. All in all he’s estimated to have made about a million pounds from the book, a dvd and other information and claims about the little girl’s death and the subsequent investigation. And they say police work is not well rewarded.

I’m not questioning the sincerity of Kercher’s heartbreak, or his need to write about his experiences. In the absolute circus that this trial turned into, it’s no wonder that the participants felt a compelling desire to have their own sides of the story heard. I’m sure the same is true of many of the writers who were thrust into the limelight in appalling circumstances, and want to tell their stories. But there is often something rather distasteful about the rush to print to fill the public’s thirst for information on this and other high-profile cases, and the chunks of dough being generated by some of the spillers of the beans.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

Just the Jobs – a Surfeit of Big Steves

Steve Jobs came on holiday with me this year. An interesting companion he was – not too chatty, rather taciturn, in fact, but always present.

I’d glance round and find him on the lounger next to mine. Often he’d be around at mealtimes, sitting quietly at the table, not even asking for the salt. Occasionally, he’d be face down on the floor but someone would pick him up and he seemed no worse for wear.

Steve was so ubiquitous, I began to wonder whether there was more than one of him. Yes, indeed, it turned out there were no fewer than three Steves between about 10 adults on our holiday. Admittedly, it was a rather techy, designy, Appley sort of crowd but still – 30%! Turns out this figure isn’t out of the ball park: 383000 copies of the book were sold in the first week in the US. One source says that all 250000 copies of the Chinese edition sold within a day of its release. The book was the season’s bestseller on Amazon.

Never in the history of summer holidays has a book been so well represented, in my experience. Bill Bryson might have come close in about 2005, with A Short History of Nearly Everything. Last year Keith Richards’s autobiography was a good source of outrageous anecdotes and, helpfully, dissuaded one from that third glass of wine. But Steve Jobs, the authorised biography by Walter Isaacson, takes the cake, both for number of copies and influence.

Not only was Steve ever-present among the Jobs Readers; the non-Jobs Readers got their share of him too. The Jobs Readers were so enthralled by the book that they would read chunks and anecdotes to anyone in earshot.

No denying, these were fascinating, and they had the added advantage of sparing me the burden of having to actually read the book myself.

I felt a bit sorry for the third person to read Steve Jobs. He’d launch into a delightful tale about how Jobs insisted that the inside of the computer would look just as cool and neat as the outside, and someone would snap: “We’ve heard that one!”

So influential is Steve Jobs that, almost imperceptibly, he began to control our minds and actions. You would be untangling the strings of a kite, or preparing the braai, and a little voice inside your head would whisper: “What would Steve Jobs do?” Well, he’d certainly read his holiday books on an iPad, as did many of my holiday companions this year.

There were a couple of Kindles, but iPads were pressed into service for occupying children on long car trips, downloading recipes, keeping up with e-mails and, yes, reading. Even avowed fans of the glossy magazine loved the new Vanity Fair app.

Read the cover story on Lady Gaga, see Annie Liebowitz’s pictures, then watch a behind the scenes video of the shoot. Read the story of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall, and listen to the authentic Dixieland jazz recorded there. In these and so many other small ways, Steve Jobs’s genius touched our little corner of the Eastern Cape.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

Genius of fabulous first lines

I have never begun a column with more misgiving. That’s not true – sometimes I begin in a state of anxiety, knowing that vituperative e-mails are bound to follow an unpopular expression of opinion.

But not in this case. Actually, I had just read the opening sentence of Somerset Maugham’s book, The Razor’s Edge (1944) – “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving” – and was envious of its brilliance. Talk about drawing the reader in … So I thought I’d borrow it. But it really doesn’t work as well for a column.

Nonetheless, it does form a neat intro for a piece about first lines of novels. There is a prize for the worst opening line (named in honour of the author of “It was a dark and stormy night …”), but as far as I know, no equivalent for the best opening line. If there were, Jane Austen would definitely be a contender, for the opening to Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Another all-time favourite is from LP Hartley, The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Don’t you just love it? The use of “do” instead of “did”, as if the past were present, that’s the clincher.

Two more that spring to mind: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S Thomson. And: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” from George Orwell’s 1984.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So begins Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. I read the book as an impressionable teenager and have never forgotten that opening sentence. Even more memorable and oft quoted is the opening to Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which I suspect isn’t true, although it sounds as if it should be.

Looking into other people’s favourite choices for first lines, I came upon an absolute slam-dunk for the first-line prize: “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” I have never read Rose Macaulay’s, The Towers of Trebizond, from which it comes, but am moved to dash out immediately and see if I can find a copy of this 1956 novel.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth,” starts The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger.

In closing, here’s the first sentence from Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” Well, that’s that then. You have just read the last sentence of this Paper Weight column.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

Things Left in Books

Knowing that you love book-themed diversions as much as the next person – well, me – and hoping that you are also a nosey parker, I recommend Michael Popek’s bookish efforts. Popek runs a rare and used book shop, as well as the deliciously voyeuristic website www.forgottenbookmarks.com, on which he catalogues all the strange things he finds slipped inside books.

His book, Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages (available on Amazon) features his favourite interesting finds.

It’s quite extraordinary what people use to keep their place, and then forget to remove. In addition to actual bookmarks, there are also pictures and notes and letters. Money, tickets and invitations. You’ll see pressed flowers and leaves, including a four-leaf clover and, aptly, a cutting of white heather in a Victorian edition of Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs. There’s a perfectly preserved butterfly inside The Oxford Book of Short Stories chosen by VS Pritchett.

The website categorises the finds. A favourite category is “recipes” (in fact, there’s a sister site, www.handwritten recipes.com, dedicated to them). They are intriguing, written in spidery old-fashioned handwriting, and calling for ingredients such as lard and Graham Crackers and molasses, that we of the Jamie Oliver generation seldom require. A number of them offer rather tempting recipes for various types of cookies (I will be making the brown sugar cookies). There’s even a bizarre recipe for an “improved” version of instant coffee, which clearly predates our own era, with its fetishisation of coffee: “Bring water to boil. Put instant coffee in water. Let come to boil again until bubbles come to top. Immediately turn off fire – let coffee stand a minute or two – then pour into cups. The second boiling is the secret.” Tell that to Lavazza!

Some of the finds are evocative, even sad; others are deeply confusing. Most just offer a little glimpse of ordinary life a long time ago. Others leave you wondering. One is a first page of a letter, written “somewhere in New Guinea”, on American Red Cross stationery and dated April 29: “Hello Ma. Guess it is about time I wrote you folks a few lines, what do you think? I am still alive and feeling fine. In fact I am getting so I don’t mind this place one bit. I could find nicer places but this is no where as bad as you people think back home …”

It goes on in a similar vein, rather cheerful, and designed to ease mum’s worries. It leaves you wondering whether this chap made it home. You hope that he’s still around, in his 80s of course, sitting out on his porch in a swing seat, enjoying his grandchildren.

The website brings to mind a book enjoyed by my book club a couple of years ago, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. The story focuses on an imagined past of the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest surviving Jewish illuminated texts. In the novel, an Australian book conservator who is restoring the Haggadah comes upon clues – missing silver clasps, the remains of an insect, various stains and spots – which are explained as part of the manuscript’s long history. The story alternates between the present, in which the book restorer solves the mysteries, and the history of the holy book, which is entangled in the violent history of Europe through the centuries.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

It’s Crazy Facts Time

It’s all about tradition, this time of year. There’s comfort in knowing that year in, year out, come what may, by the immutable laws of nature and/or commerce, November will bring with it certain things. Jacarandas. Idiots on the roads.

A collection of Zapiro cartoons. The sounds of Boney M in the shopping malls. A new Jamie Oliver cookbook. A heft of political and celeb biographies. New faces in the gym.

But nothing shouts “Here comes Christmas!” like the arrival of a new, updated, splendider-than-ever, now-with-even-more-amazingness edition of Guinness World Records. Also, The Top 10 of Everything and Ripley’s Believe it or Not and a few lesser-known collections of strange facts and even stranger people.

The arrival of a review copy of one of these books is a high point in my son’s year – he falls upon it like a starving man on a Bar One and immediately starts regaling us with gems like: “Did you know that the world’s heaviest person weighs as much as an adult domestic water buffalo?”

Which I didn’t, but I realise, on reading these books, that I lead a very sheltered life. There are many things that surprise me. Sometimes, not in a good way. There are many things I do not know. This bothers me not a jot – you can get along just fine without knowing that the record for shelling a boiled egg is 18.95 seconds, or that the largest lederhosen are 5m tall. But once you have these fact-and-figure books in your house, you are no longer allowed to exist in this happy state of ignorance. There’s something about such a book that makes the reader want to share. The first three or four facts are rather entertaining; thereafter, less so.

“What were you thinking, letting that book into the house?” hissed my brother, who had popped in for a visit and found me hiding under the bed with my hands over my ears. “You know what happens.”

And then he stopped coming round for a bit, hoping the novelty would wear off and he would again be able to visit without hearing about the highest pancake toss. The rest of the family refuse to get into the car with the books (trapped!), and motivate for the small boy and the large books to be quarantined in his room.

In fairness, there are some good bits. In particular, I have a fondness for pointless ridiculousness. Doesn’t it gladden your heart to know that someone, somewhere, is teaching 13 dogs to simultaneously jump rope? Or, (as did Laura Hadland), creating a giant mosaic, made up of pieces of toast burnt to varying degrees of brownness, depicting her mother-in-law.

I’m also fond of giant vegetables. And very large dogs, and certain other animals, but not humans. That’s just depressing. Incidentally, it’s worth buying the Top 10 just for the picture of the Southern Elephant seal, the world’s largest carnivore, we’re told, which weighs 4000kg.

On the subject of end-of-year staples, I’d like to motivate for the return of the annual. Proper annuals, not the Strictly Come Dancing annual, or the Justin Bieber annual. The ones we got in my childhood, when everyone got a new annual every Christmas – Beano or Dandy for boys, Diane or Mandy for girls. They were a mix of stories, comics, puzzles, jokes, things to do … Yes, just the sort of stuff you now get by the bucketload, for free, off the internet. But it was rarer and more delightful in those days, and on paper. It really was.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

In India with Dalrymple

One of life’s sweetest serendipities is to find oneself reading the right book for one’s situation, a book perfectly pitched in time and place, in tone and feeling. I had just this experience on a recent trip to India. The absolutely ideal book found its way into my hands for this trip, and it came accompanied by friendship and its own history.

A dear friend lent me her treasured and often-read copy of City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple. This same copy had accompanied her to India a few years back, and its title page featured an inscription from the author, and his signature. I’d hoped to read it before I left, but as it turned out, I started it at OR Tambo Airport, and by the time I reached Delhi, was halfway through.

Dalrymple leads us through the narrow streets of Old Delhi, uncovering layers of history and culture. He describes the city he came to love in spite of – or perhaps because of – its strange ways, its dust and traffic chaos, its stifling summers and its inexplicable bureaucracy. Dalrymple – oh, I’m just going to call him William, we feel like friends now – arrives as a newly married young man and we join him in his discovery of the city and its inhabitants. His curiosity, intellect, humanity and humour make him an enlightening and entertaining guide.

In particular, he delights in the inhabitants who represent the remnants of Delhi’s past – the boy who flies his pigeons from his rooftop; the men who host the partridge fights that, like elephant fights, were part of the ancient Mughal tradition; Sufis and dervishes; a wise and eccentric historian with a marvellous line in parables; the city’s few remaining eunuchs.

Visiting Delhi nearly 20 years after the author first arrived in the city, I was amazed at how apt his book seemed, and how many of his anecdotes and stories were echoed in my own brief visit.

A favourite character is William’s regular taxi driver, Mr Singh. His taxi stand is located behind the India International Centre, hence its name: International Backside Taxis. I laughed when I read this amusing Indianism, and again when I heard the same use of the word, when a helpful stranger directed me to “go backside of the Metro”.

He describes his driver’s habit of spitting betel juice out of the car window; our driver would open the door of the moving car, lean down and emit a spurt of red juice onto the tarmac.

If his own experiences in New Delhi were a welcome companion as I explored the modern city, William’s tales of the ancient Mughal rulers provided intriguing back stories to my visits to India’s ancient forts and palaces.

The way he tells it, Shah Jehan, who famously built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife, was a tad less uxorious than one might have imagined. He was famously sexually voracious, and was widely suspected of incest and of preying on the wives of his nobles.

Behind the celebrated architectural symmetry and the courtly manners of the day was a complex brew of feuds, spy networks, power struggles and murder that makes fascinating reading. Indeed, the heir to Shah Jehan’s throne was determined not by who was first born, but by fratricide and war, and by locking up the old man himself.

I couldn’t have wished for a better book to inform and reflect my travels.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


» read article

Don’t waste your pennies for their thoughts

Truly, readers today are spoilt for choice. In just the slim little sub-genre of people with silly names and dubious fame, there is a wealth of reading matter.

There’s Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far, the memoirs of Bristol Palin, daughter of the former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin.

I don’t know if she reveals why she was named after England’s sixth largest city, but apparently she does write about how she lost her virginity to boyfriend Levi Johnston on a camping trip after too many wine coolers. The thing is, Leeds, sorry, Bristol, is only 20 and some might consider that a bit early for writing your memoirs (although Justin Bieber did it at 16 and debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list).

Others might wonder, redundantly, whether Bath, sorry, Bristol, whatever, can write. Others might say, unfairly perhaps, that having a famous mum and a teen pregnancy are insufficient grounds for publication. Not everyone is as nitpicky. The book is generating a great deal of interest in the US where Bristol is apparently popular, as only a straying sheep returned to the fold can be. She is an advocate of teen abstinence and a highly paid public speaker, having Learnt Her Lesson The Hard Way.

I might eschew Manchester’s memoir in favour of the sisterhood autobiography of the Kardashians (can’t remember their names but they all start with K), Kardashian Konfidential. Or perhaps we should wait for their first novel later this year? The book is based on the sisters’ lives – okay, I Googled their names for you and they are Kim, Kourtney and Khloe. See my dedication to literature? – and is a mixture of fiction and fact (like the rest of their lives, one might say).

Considering the alleged demise of the “dead-tree” industry, it is astonishing how much absolute drivel is published in the celebrity memoir genre. You would think that the fewer the number of books being published, the more picky the publishers would be, and that we readers would benefit from this refined choice.

Instead, it seems, they are playing to the crowd. And we all know where that leads: to memoirs and autobiographies of people you’ve barely heard of, or can hardly bear, or who should stick to their knitting/singing/self-promoting. In other words, to The Woman I Was Born To Be, by Susan Boyle. And to My Story, by Dannii Minogue. And, indeed, to Cheryl Cole’s Through My Eyes. And so on…

I love a good memoir, but two conditions apply. First, the person must be interesting. Nowadays, the popular view is that everyone is by definition interesting, and that their own special perspective is worthwhile, and, as a result, many people have taken to writing about themselves and their experiences. Sorry. No. It may be cathartic, but it’s not interesting.

If you are, say, Keith Richards, and both a rock ‘n’ roll legend and a medical miracle for simply being alive after all that drug abuse, you get to write Life. And as his life was filled with fame and craziness and fantastic riffs, he had plenty to write about (“For many years,” he says, “I slept, on average, twice a week”). He also meets condition number two – that the person can actually write, preferably with style and a bit of self-irony and even, if we’re really lucky, a sense of humour.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times books columnist


» read article