6 Books That Blend Memoir and Social Commentary

Claire Handscombe

I don’t know exactly what you call this genre, but it's one that seems to have gained popularity in recent years: the investigation of a phenomenon with science and facts mixed with personal essay and experience, as well as, sometimes, literary criticism. It's often a fascinating way into a particular subject, whether insomnia, swimming, the sea, or romantic love.

Insomnia, by Maria Benjamin

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This seems to be another book of the kind I’ve enjoyed in recent years, where an author takes an experience of theirs and explores it through literature, art, pop culture, psychology, and more. Is there a name for this genre? Who knows, but this book – which pays particular attention to the relationship between women and sleep, from the classical legend of Penelope and Odysseus to the things that keep women awake in 2018 – sounds intriguing.

Is Monogamy Dead? by Rosie Wilby

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Comedian Rosie Wilby adds humour into the mix as she interrogates romantic relationships in the 21st century.

Salt on Your Tongue, by Charlotte Runcie

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Like Charlotte Runcie, I’ve always loved the sea, so I’m excited about this gorgeous-looking book. It’s also the kind of nonfiction that’s my favourite: memoir mixed with social history, literary criticism, and biography. The author explores how the death of her grandmother and birth of her first child changed her relationship to the sea, and navigates through ancient myths, poetry, shipwrecks, folktales, and history to help us understand the place of oceans in our lives and culture.

Spinster, by Kate Bolick

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The chapters are long in this one, so I’ve mostly saved it for my long weekend reading-in-bed-with-no-time-pressure sessions. It’s likely to take me quite a while this way. Part memoir, part literary and social history, part exploration of feminist thought, this is a really interesting book, and different from anything else I’ve read.

Swell, by Jenny Landreth

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Part social history, part memoir, Swell is a love letter to swimming and to the achievements of the “swimming sufragettes” who fought for equal access to beaches, lakes, and pools. It also “celebrates some amazing achievements, some ridiculous outfits and some fantastic swimmers who challenge the stereotypes of what women are capable of”. Sounds right up Book Riot readers’ street.

Unrequited, by Lisa A Phillips

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This book came to me at just the right time, at the height of a completely impossible romantic obsession of my own. It made me feel less crazy, less alone, and in fact positively balanced compared to some of the women in this book, who went to extraordinary lengths to attract or keep a man. It’s written with empathy, though, and never mocks women with romantic obsession. It’s the kind of non-fiction I enjoy, and may write some day: a blend of memoir and psychological exploration and (recent) social history. I’ve never come across any non-fiction on this topic before – and if I felt so glad to find it, I’d bet thousands of others would.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC
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