Advice · Reading

Not everything is copy

I was sad to read of the death of Sally Brampton earlier this week. A few years ago I bought “Shoot the Damn Dog”, her Memoir of Depression, on a friend’s recommendation. It’s the kind of book that I have started, and then dipped into, rather than read cover to cover. It’s excellent, but heavy-going for me. Since buying the book I haven’t felt the need to learn as much about depression as this book can teach me. Now that her story has ended, whenever I do get around to reading the book it will, sadly, be with the knowledge of what happened next.

There are many medical conditions about which I have no direct personal experience. That’s true for all of us (all of us who aren’t medical professionals). We know about the things that we have been through, and the things that other family members and friends have been through, but that leaves a vast range of diagnoses and conditions about which we know very little.

AIDS, dementia and depression are the subjects of many of the books on my shelves (many of them still unread) and we are fortunate to have had no direct personal experience of them. Many of the books dealing with AIDS now read as a record of a specific time in history rather than as something current. A book like Paul Monette’s “Borrowed Time” feels like it’s from a completely different era, less than 30 years after publication, and even the modern-day sections of Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” read more like a period piece these days, only 17 years after it won the Pulitzer Prize. Will books that deal with dementia or depression feel like period pieces any time soon? It doesn’t seem likely.

A phrase that appeared in the Guardian’s obituary about Sally Brampton (“everything is copy”) got me thinking again about how much we share, in the social media we favour, or in Blogs and articles that anyone can read:

She wrote with candour about her situation – she married and divorced for a third time and struggled in her relationship with her mother – believing, like one of her heroes, Nora Ephron, that “everything is copy”.

I don’t see things the same way. Maybe I have been put off by stories that show what can happen when you write, even with as much anonymity as possible, about people close to you. For example I remember very clearly the fall-out from the Guardian’s “Living with Teenagers” column, which you can read about here, and which I am surprised to find was over seven years ago. My copy of the book that was published from these pieces comes from a time when the author’s name was still “Anonymous”, but as the article says:

Since the identity of the children in Living With Teenagers is now known, we have removed the columns from the Guardian website to protect their privacy.

Not everything can stay anonymous forever. Not everything is copy.

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