5 memoirs to read in self-isolation that will make you a better person

From her Sydney home where she’s in quarantine, Australian writer Bri Lee shares the five memoirs to read that will make you a better person.

“Social distancing” is an unfortunate choice of words for what we all need to be doing right now. Physical distance—yes, absolutely, of course—but socially we need to be thinking of each other more than ever. I feel incredibly fortunate that the thing I do for work (writing books) and the thing I most love to do in my spare time (reading books) are mostly immune from the growing crisis. Local bookstores around the country are offering free shipping right now, and if checking your phone is making you more anxious than informed, a book may be the answer.

Memoir can be the most incredible genre of nonfiction. My favourite type of memoir is the one that makes you feel like you’re riding shotgun on someone else’s journey. They’re in the driver’s seat and you’re seeing and hearing all kinds of things you never would in your own life. The best of these memoirs are ones that weave new information—about issues, times, places, and power—into the narrative so that I’m a better thinker and feeler at the end of the book than I was at the start.

What more perfect time could there be, than this forced isolation and this frightening new world, to make new connections via excellent books? Life stories can help us understand who we are while everything around us changes. Here are five of my favourite memoirs that might just teach you things you never knew you never knew.


Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

Jackson’s 2015 story in The Guardian sparked world-wide recognition and set her on the path to writing an entire book: it had been 14 years since she had been diagnosed with endometriosis, and still nothing had really changed. Why are so few clinical trials done with women? How is our understanding of women’s health so awfully limited to seeing them only as conduits for potential babies? Why don’t doctors believe women when they say they are in pain? We are socialised to think it’s normal, and it’s not okay. Along with Dr Nikki Stamp’s book, Can You Die of a Broken Heart, this memoir reveals just how badly our medical system is letting women down.


Stranger Country by Monica Tan

Tan has written a book that sits fantastically at the precipice between memoir and travel writing. At 32 Tan, a first-generation Chinese-Australian, quits her normal, successful, “city-slicker” life, and sets off on a thirty-thousand kilometre solo trip around remote Australia. She shares meals and beers with all kinds of people, getting herself into then out of a few tricky spots. The most powerful thing about this memoir is how Tan’s sensitivity and curiosity leads her to uncover the truth about some stories of this country’s history, and of course the lies about other parts of it. More of us should take some time and think about what it really means to be Australian, and this book is a great starting point.


DV by Diana Vreeland

How would you feel if you read a snippet of a beauty advice column that told you to wash your child’s hair in French champagne to bring out their blonde highlights? Or that the bikini was the most important invention since the atom bomb? Such outrageous pronouncements come from the red-lipped smile of a woman who is singularly responsible for a breathtaking amount of what we now consider ‘given’ taste in fashion and beauty. Vreeland was the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar for over two decades then Editor-in-Chief of Vogue from 1963 to 1971, and created dozens of spectacular exhibits at The Met’s Fashion Institute. Taken with a pinch of salt, this memoir is like a history lesson in magazine culture from the woman who styled First Lady Jacky Kennedy Onassis.


The White Album by Joan Didion

I’ve chosen The White Album of all of Didion’s books—some of which are much more memoirish than this one—because as I look at the world around me, and the ways it seems to be unravelling, I can’t help but think of all the parallels Didion was documenting from America at the end of the 60s. The duality at the heart of this collection of writing is Didion’s own life and mental state decomposing as society around her did too. She is waiting to receive a diagnosis from the doctor as she considers how much of what we keep telling each other about life is actually true. This book is also the source of that quote which now means so much to so many of us: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”


One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton

If you’re someone who’s only had to reflect on class and poverty in a kind of abstract, grateful way, then Rick Morton’s hand is the hilarious and tender one you need to take in order to learn. His family story is one of devastating trauma, both accidental and physically abusive, but most people who I talk to about this memoir ultimately agree it’s a kind of love-letter to his mum. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you won’t be able to put it down, and you’ll turn the last page with a better understanding of how the other half live in Australia.

Bri Lee is the author of Eggshell Skull and On Beauty.

Four products to keep in your book nook:

Byredo’s Bibliothèque candle conjures warmth and libraries (Bibliothèque, of course, means library in French) with its full-bodied wood scent.

Bastide’s Ambre d'Or Potpourri Crystals are made from acacia tree sap — keep them on your bookstand to keep things smelling sweet.

Mecca Cosmetica Nourishing Hand Cream is a MECCA favourite for good reason. There’s no better time like book time to double dose on moisturiser for your hands.

111Skin’s Black Diamond Eye Mask is the indulgent mask to relax in while reading your latest book.

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