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.
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!