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Bossypants vs. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

June 10, 2011

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Bossypants by Tina Fey 


Maybe dysfunctional literates tend to be males, but nobody knows for sure.  The studies haven’t been done yet (but we’re going to work on it once we get the funding).  However, some women do tell Moby Dick jokes; they just don’t normally do it around men.  Since women read a lot, it makes sense that a statistically significant number of them would be dysfunctional literates, so it also makes sense to review some books that might appeal to women a bit more than men. 

Plus we didn’t want to get accused of gender bias. 


Maya Angelou has two strikes against her from a dysfunctional literate’s point of view.  Oprah likes her.  Strike one.  Angelou is a poet.  Strike two.    When Dysfunctional Literacy assigned me to write a review of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I felt my stomach tighten, and I thought that it would be the longest short book I’ve ever read.  I expected an overwrought tearjerker that would make me grimace with anti-male guilt.  Yeah, lots of bad stuff happens in the book, but Maya Angelou, at least in this particular book, is a storyteller first, and a poet second.  In other words, I always knew what was going on, and I didn’t have to think too hard to understand what was going, and I didn’t think the author was going out of her way to try to make me cry. 

Okay, I liked it.  I admit it.  Gloat, Oprah, gloat (if you care what a dysfunctional literate thinks).  


One of the complaints that some critics have of Maya Angelou’s prose is that she overdoes it with the metaphors.  First of all, writers today don’t use enough metaphors, so that’s one reason that Angelou’s writing is worth reading today.  Even the title of this book is a metaphor.  Besides, she’s a poet.  Poets are supposed to use metaphors, especially if their poems don’t rhyme (and yes, I know that some of Angelou’s poems rhyme, but prose doesn’t, so she has to use other devices, and a metaphor is the best one for prose).  When a poet writes prose, this is what you get.   


Is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings going to be read a hundred years from now, or not?  I would wager so.  Usually a memoir is either well-written but pointless, or poorly written but with an interesting story (and sometimes it’s both poorly written and pointless).  This is one of the few memoirs that is well-written, interesting, and has a point. 

After reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I really know why the caged bird sings and I know why I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a classic.  


First of all, I think Tina Fey can be pretty funny.  I’m one of the (probably) few people who likes both Tina Fey and Sarah Palin.  I like them, but I don’t like like them (which means I like them but don’t feel the desire to defend them).  Tina Fey fans have probably already read her book and don’t need advice from a dysfunctional literate.  So my advice is from a perspective of Tina Fey semi-ambivalence. 

This could have been a really good book, but Tina Fey avoids getting too personal, which I understand because her niche is humor.  We don’t expect Angelou-ish metaphors that will leave grown men pondering their place in the universe, but even so, the humor is more clever than funny.  Some of the laughter evoked from this book might be like the delayed nervous tittering we hear from Saturday Night Live audiences reacting to a silly sketch (probably not written by Tina Fey) that they know should be funny but isn’t really. 

I had a tough time figuring out why I felt disconnected from Bossypants.  I don’t think it’s because I’m a guy (because I didn’t feel that way with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).  It’s not because I don’t care for Saturday Night Live.  Finally, I figured it out.  Tina Fey seems funnier and more insightful when she isn’t writing about herself.  For most people, they are their own favorite topics.  It seems like with Tina Fey, she is her least favorite topic (Yeah, that might be an exaggeration), which makes for maybe not the best memoir ever. 

I’d like to see Tina Fey write a fake but real history textbook.  That would probably be pretty (intentionally) funny. 


This isn’t a fair comparison, but sometimes we dysfunctional literates have to make the tough decisions that others are afraid to make. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a better serious book than Bossypants is a humorous book.

One Comment
  1. I agreed, Caged Bird over successful tv idol. I don’t really care about Tina Fey’s life and she is probably better at writing short little blurbs of funniness. Maya Angelou is scary but good. Her poems are bossy in a much bigger way. Will anyone remember Bossypants? Did you know that Jamie Kennedy wrote a book as well? That’s just sad. I read way too much.

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