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Review: Memoir – A History by Ben Yagoda

Review: Memoir – A History by Ben Yagoda post image

Title: Memoir: A History
Author: Ben Yagoda
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2009
Acquired: Requested from the publisher for review
Rating: ★★★★½

One Sentence Summary: Memoir: A History is exactly what the title implies — an overview of how memoirs have evolved from the early days of spiritual autobiography to the current trends of celebrity memoir and contested truth.

One Sentence Review: This book is a must read for anyone interested in reading memoirs or enjoys talking about truth and writing and how we’ve gotten to the type of memoirs we can read today.

Long Review: I knew I was going to like this book when one of the first section spent time discussing Daniel DeFoe (the author of Robinson Crusoe) and the influence of the spiritual autobiography in the 1700s. See, my senior English paper was an in-depth analysis of almost exactly the same topic, and I carry around this secret torch for anything Daniel DeFoe. Yagoda explored many of the themes I tried to address in my paper — the development of truth and the impact of the development of fiction on nonfiction writing — which made my heart do a few nerdy flip flops through the chapter. I knew I was hooked.

And I was definitely pleased with where the book went from there. Yagoda follows the development of the memoir from the earliest confessionals (think The Confessions of Saint Augustine) to the whole slew of memoirs we have today (celebrity memoirs, “misery memoirs,” dad memoirs, and dog memoirs, among others). Throughout, he focuses on some important topics — truth in memoir and memory, treatments of others, and what has made us so narcissistic that everyone thinks they should write a memoir.

Given the topic, this book could have been a pretty dry history. Luckily, it’s not. Yagoda has a calm but bemused tone throughout that makes the history pretty easy to read. Plus, he spends a lot of time making connections between memoirists of the past and writers today, trying to trace current trends back to their earliest origins. I found the connections the most interesting part, and Yagoda writes them with precision and quiet humor. I like this passage about truth and the easy of writing fake:

In any society where a particular currency has high vale and is farily easily fashioned, counterfeiters will quickly and inevitably emerge. And so it has been with memoir. Make no mistake: for anyone with minimal conscience, plus reasonable imagination and literary and research skills, writing an autobiography that’s substantially or even totally fake is elementary. Once the writing is complete, given an only slightly higher level of cunning and guile, the marketing of such a work is easier still.

That section goes on to discuss the process for moving a memoir from writing to press and the many areas where truth is explored — or ignored — before the memoir is published.

Also, Yagoda’s comments on James Frey (the memoir faker of A Million Little Pieces) made me laugh out loud:

After his book had come out to striking success, Frey spoke to Entertainment Weekly. “When I walk into Random House, they treat me like a rock star,” he said. “People are breathless. They can’t believe I’m alive. They’re like ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!'”

Is it any surprise that such a self-absorbed poseur should, in his book, have pumped up his life to make it seem more violent, painful, melodramatic, and extreme than it was. Of course not.


My one problem with the book is the constant name dropping. Yagoda often just lists memoir authors, assuming the reader will know who they are and without listing the name of their book. Being a book blogger, the constant lists of authors and books made me immediately contemplate hosting a challenge to read memoirs through history, but without a list or glossary matching names with the titles my hopes for an easy challenge list were dashed.

Well, not dashed. Put on hold, for the moment anyway. But reading this book did inspire me to think more critically and thoughtfully about the memoirs I read, think about what truthfulness really means, and how memoirs today have changed in response to memoirs of the past. If you have any interest in memoirs, I think this book is a necessity.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gwen March 1, 2010, 5:15 pm

    I hadn’t even thought of it before, but memoirs have really changed. I am sure it isn’t really for the better;(

    Must add this to my list.

    • Kim March 3, 2010, 9:08 pm

      Gwen: I think whether memoirs have changed for the better is an interesting question. Certainly, more people write and publish memoirs now than have ever before. With so many memoirs, inevitably there will be quite a few bad ones in the mix. I think memoirs today are probably more interesting though, if only because we have memoirs on a lot more topics than just spiritual growth 🙂

  • Jenny March 1, 2010, 5:48 pm

    Love the quote about James Frey. I cannot believe Frey would say that in an interview. What a jerk.

    • Kim March 3, 2010, 9:09 pm

      Jenny: That’s such an asinine thing to say, but I love he said it to a journalist.

  • Aarti March 1, 2010, 6:33 pm

    I really have no desire to read James Frey’s books. It disturbs me that they became even MORE popular after his ridiculous made-up plot came out.

    I don’t really read too many memoirs. The ones that really boggle me are the ones with animals- but maybe I just don’t get the whole animal thing 🙂

    This sounds like a really interesting book, just from the perspective of seeing the way the books change. Now it seems like every celebrity writes memoirs- and a lot of b-list celebs, too, which is odd. So would be interesting to see how he explores that.

    • Kim March 3, 2010, 9:10 pm

      Aarti: Yeah, this book touches a bit on how controversy improves sales. Annoying!

      I think he does a good job of trying to look at how certain types of memoirs have come to be. I still don’t always get animal or b-celeb memoirs, but there are cultural reasons we’ve grown to have them that the book tries to address.

  • Julie March 1, 2010, 7:48 pm

    This does sound interesting. It sounds like it could have been a little dry, but I’m glad it wasn’t! The name dropping without refrences would be frustrating. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kim March 3, 2010, 9:11 pm

      Julie: I was glad it wasn’t dry too, that would have been hard to read.

  • Belle March 1, 2010, 10:47 pm

    Such a fun excerpt about Frey! I really enjoy memoirs, although I wouldn’t have thought about reading a book about them until I read your review.

    • Kim March 3, 2010, 9:11 pm

      Belle: I’m not sure I would have thought of it either until I saw the author interviewed in a couple of news stories. That made me curious, and I’m glad it did because this book was fascinating.

  • Andi March 2, 2010, 8:36 am

    Gotta have this one. That is all.


    • Kim March 3, 2010, 9:11 pm

      Andi: Best comment ever. That is all. 🙂

  • Eva March 3, 2010, 2:12 am

    Pre-book blogging, I was rather anti-memoirs. But I’ve slowly been won over in the last couple of years (although I’m avoid any kind of ‘dysfunction’ memoir like the plague), so this sounds really interesting!

    I’d totally participate in a historical memoir challenge. 😀

    • Kim March 3, 2010, 9:12 pm

      Eva: I’m not a big fan of dysfunction memoirs either. They end up depressing me, or all sounding the same. I like memoirs from people who have a really unique experience that I can’t hope to ever have.

      I’ll think about a historical memoir challenge. I think it would be fun, and it’d be exciting to try a lot of different ones.

  • Jennifer March 4, 2010, 5:33 pm

    Sounds like a really interesting book. And one that can really introduce you to a lot of other works. Great review.

    • Kim March 9, 2010, 1:39 pm

      Jennifer: The fact that the book mentioned so many other books and authors was one of the things I loved about it, even if I sometimes wanted more specifics from the author.

  • Ben Yagoda April 1, 2010, 2:12 pm

    Kim–thanks for the great review. And I definitely understand what you mean about all the names.–Ben

    • Kim April 3, 2010, 3:30 pm

      Ben: Thank you for stopping by to comment. I really enjoyed the book, and the glossary critique was mostly my own curiosity about some of the authors you mentioned.