As a recent university graduate, one question that’s sure to signal that you’ve closed one of life’s chapters and are moving onto the next is: So, what are you reading? For the first time in years, my answer hasn’t orbited around a course curriculum and less-than-pleasurable material. One night in May, over food, my friends and I agreed that, since graduating, we finally had the luxury of reading for ourselves. Each of us relished the opportunity to share what was on our newfound reading lists. One friend noted that she’d gotten in the habit of reading one book a week, switching between lighter fiction and heavier non-fiction. That week, she was reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, an indulgence after she’d worked through Tanya Talaga’s wrenching non-fiction work, Seven Fallen Feathers, the week before. When it came to my turn, I chimed in rather sheepishly: Had anyone else read Mindy Kaling’s second memoir, Why Not Me?
Conversations about books – where the expectation is to discuss Books with a capital B – are always incredibly intimidating for me and this was far from the first occasion where the only thing I’d recently read was a celebrity memoir. In my third year of university, I spent winter break with the comic Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow Out of It. The summer before that, I’d spent my vacation devouring Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Tina Fey’s Bossypants. I’ve consumed almost every title in this camp and despite the fact that I can’t get enough of them, I have trouble admitting that my reading list pretty much ends there.
Celebrity memoirs have a bad reputation: for lacking substance, for being overindulgent, for being unrelatable, for being, at the worst, poorly ghost-written. But the one true exception to the uncultured stereotype are those written by powerhouse female comedians. Reading about the lives of these incredible women is an eye-opener for a recent grad who’s still plotting her next move. Celebrities such as Klein, Fey and Amy Poehler (her book Yes Please is, yes, a must read) may lead lives far different from my own, but their confessional writing is comforting: It’s nice to know they were once awkward youths like the rest of us. They have no qualms about putting these less glamorous times on paper. The “do it for the story” attitude that many stand-up comedians carry is equally present in these books. Having embarrassing memories is good if you’re writing a frank autobiography and when these women share their slip ups, it helps young readers like me make light of, and ultimately come to terms with, our own mistakes.
Take Klein’s work, for instance. Throughout You’ll Grow Out of It, she candidly recalls lapses in relationships past and present with the 2020 vision that only hindsight provides. In one chapter, she tells the story of the time she visited the home she once shared with her first real boyfriend to collect her belongings mere months after they’d parted ways. Equipped with the knowledge that her ex had moved on and was sleeping with another woman, Klein entered the apartment (with his permission) while he was on vacation and quickly succumbed to the urge to rifle through the space for evidence of his new relationship. What Klein finds – the new lover’s hair tie sitting next to his bed, a FedEx slip for a package he’d sent the woman, an open bottle of lube spilling onto his bedroom floor – sends her into a spiral of rage, even leading her to consider smearing cake from his fridge onto his apartment walls.
Rereading this chapter one year after the end of my own tumultuous first love and learning that a woman I admire has acted as impulsively and childishly as I have in similar situations is oddly empowering. In the rocky few months after my own breakup, I, too, fell victim to urges to find signs that my ex had met someone else and I, too, grappled with bouts of extreme anger toward him – and myself – when I found the signs I was looking for. But Klein’s story reminded me that I’m not alone in this and that there’s humour to be found in even the darkest memories, when we feel and behave in ways that embody our lowest selves.
These narratives also appeal to me because of my poor attention span and busy schedule. It’s only been three months since I left university and as a humanities student who was frequently up to her eyeballs in academic literature, I never had very much patience for personal reading that required any more than a thimble’s worth of mental energy. There’s something uniquely comforting about coming home from a long day and spending two minutes on your favourite comedian’s quips about her worst breakup, before quickly nodding off. Novels just don’t offer you this type of non-committal catharsis.
That these women can impart so much in just a few pages – and in the little time we give them – ultimately feels empowering. So many women are brought up being told to quiet their voices, hide their flaws and keep their opinions to themselves. The comedians I love do the exact opposite, and their writing reminds me to follow suit. Not just this summer, but always.