Review: The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts

by Kim on July 22, 2010 · 21 comments

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The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts is a book of literary criticism looking at the role of time in memoir (duh, I guess). It also explores why memoirs are important and gives a defense of memoir against some of its common criticisms.

As Birkerts explains it, most memoirs have at least one thing in common:

They all, to greater or lesser degree, use the vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past. Each is in its own way an account of detection, a realized effort to assemble the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.

I love that idea, that what separates memoir from other fiction and nonfiction is that memoir is always working with multiple threads of time, and its the way those strands are woven together that makes the book what it is.

Birkerts gets at this feature of the memoir by looking at several types of memoirs – lyrical memoirs, coming-of-age memoirs, father and son memoirs, mother and daughter memoirs, and trauma memoirs. While these aren’t the only types, Birkerts uses them to explore different features about how time works in a story.

Birkerts is both a scholar – he is a professor at Harvard University – and a writer of his own memoir, so he approaches the subject from multiple angles. I thought this was effective, as he could both critique and analyze other memoirs while talking about the experience of writing one himself and how an author challenges notions of time as they write.

As an academic, Birkerts tone in the book can be a little dry – I’d characterize it as “academic lite.” There are some especially thick paragraphs that I had to go back and reread, like this one about Annie Dillard:

She has, in effect, tried to reinhabit each stage of her emerging awareness, laying hold of it from the inside by way of sensuous reconstruction, leaving the hindsight interpolations to a minimum, though as we will see, she does have some very important uses for this other voice.

That’s a little dense, at least for casual reading. But then there are some other completely charming and dryly humorous sections that I quite enjoyed, though of course I didn’t mark any of those down as examples…

That paragraph also illustrates another potential challenge of the book – the use of deeply analyzed examples to make each point. In some criticism, the fact that you haven’t read a certain book makes it really hard to appreciate the argument.

In this book, however, I found that wasn’t the case. Birkerts did a good job providing summary and quote examples when needed, to the point that I almost forgot I didn’t know what any of these books were about. I think that’s pretty impressive.

Another thing I appreciated about the book was that Birkerts didn’t spend much time on the whole “How true is true” controversy that comes up all the time when talking about memoirs. It’s not that I don’t think the discussion is important, just that it wasn’t what I wanted to read about in this book since it was approaching a totally new idea for me.

So while I wouldn’t recommend this book for everyone, I think many people would enjoy reading it and get as much out of it as I did. The topic isn’t one that anyone could be interested in and the writing style can be a little dense, but if you are interested in memoirs or like to read smart but accessible literary criticism, I suggest picking this book up.

I read this book as part of the Spotlight Series on Graywolf Press out of St. Paul, MN. Please visit their sites to learn more about the Spotlight Series or other books from Graywolf Press.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott July 22, 2010 at 6:38 am

“That paragraph also illustrates another potential challenge of the book – the use of deeply analyzed examples to make each point. In some criticism, the fact that you haven’t read a certain book makes it really hard to appreciate the argument.”

This reminds me of another problem I have with nonfiction – my own lack of expertise in a subject makes it hard to evaluate or critique the arguments the author is making. Did you find that was the case here, or was Birkerts effective at giving “both sides” of an argument?

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Kim July 22, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Scott: I’m not sure how to answer that — there weren’t really “sides” to this particular book or what he was trying to do. I supposed if I’d read the books I could have disagreed with his interpretations of the passages or what they meant, but other than that I’m not sure any expertise would be needed.

But you’re right about the challenge of nonfiction – sometimes it can be hard to evaluate if you don’t know much about it. I tend to seek out other reviews or criticism to see what experts have to say when I’m not sure.

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Trisha July 22, 2010 at 7:18 am

It’s actually nice to hear that the “truth” dilemma didn’t pop up. I studied historiography and now I use it to teach my lit and film courses, and I agree that we automatically begin reconstructing and modifying details, whether consciously or not, but can more really be said on it? So many books have come out, so many discussions have happened already; I would hate for the issue of “objective validity” to overshadow everything else we could be talking about with nonfiction.

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Kim July 22, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Trisha: The truth question came up, but just for a few pages right at the end. It was so nice to not read about it in a memoir book. The time issue was fascinating on its own.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) July 22, 2010 at 9:43 am

I don’t think this one is for me – it sounds too academic.

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Kim July 22, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Kathy: I actually think it’s accessible enough that anyone could pick it up. It might be a slow read (I had to be careful in sections), but it certainly wasn’t the most difficult lit criticism book I’ve ever read. It reminded me of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

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Richard Gilbert July 22, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Thanks for this great review. I just drafted my own review for my blog and googled the book and yours came up. Nice job–you nailed the key point of the book.

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Kim July 22, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Richard: Thank you! I’ll be excited to read your review as well. I hope I picked up on the important things for the book — I feel like my literary criticism brain has been hibernating for awhile.

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Chrisbookarama July 22, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Not sure I’d read it either but I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for participating!

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Kim July 22, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Chrisbookarama: Thanks, me too. I love the Spotlight Series because it inspires me to read some different kinds of books.

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Jennifer July 23, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Ah, literary criticisms … when I started college, they were literally the bane of my existence. Now, I’ve grown to love them because they are so pivotal to my existence in my English classes. Anyway, I feel like I could get into this book as I’ve grown increasingly interested in memoirs lately. Thanks for the review.

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Kim July 23, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Jennifer: I had a hard time with criticism too. It was just soooo dense and hard to even make sense of. But I’m the same way — I love getting to read some of the different ways to look at literature and stories. I think this would be a good book for thinking about memoir.

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Jenny July 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm

I love books of literary criticism, but when they say things like “laying hold of it from the inside by way of sensuous reconstruction,” I feel like they are doing it on purpose. However, this sounds good! I have read zero books about memoirs, which considering how fond I am of memoirs now seems insane and wrong. On the list it goes!

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Kim July 23, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Jenny: There were certainly some over-written parts in this book, but not as many as I might have expected. That passage was the only one I singled out as being especially big. I think this would be a good book to read learn more about memoirs — I hope you get a chance!

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Care July 24, 2010 at 4:49 am

Great review. I would be afraid that I would read this and then want to read all the memoirs listed and I have too many books to read already. I probably could benefit from reading a lit crit guide – any to recommend?

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Kim July 25, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Care: I sort of want to read all the memoirs he talked about — the book even had a good list of them at the back.

One book that’s good is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. I read it an lit theory class and it goes through most of the big theoretical ways of looking at literature. That’s the only one I can see on my bookshelf, but I’ll try to think of others.

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Care July 26, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Awesome! Thanks! :)

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Niall July 31, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Thanks so much for this good review – it sounds like a really interesting book, dealing with a fascinating subject. I’d be interested to know which father-son memoirs Birkerts deals with, and what he means by a ‘lyrical memoir’?

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Kim August 1, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Niall: When he talked about a lyrical memoir, he was looking mostly at essays that were written in a way that specifically explores some of the challenges of memoir — time, memory, etc — to be connected with memory and the process of finding a story. I’m not sure that’s a very clear explanation! The examples he uses are Vladimir Nabokov (Speak, Memory), Virginia Woolf (“A Sketch of the Past”), and Annie Dillard (An American Childhood).

The father/son memoirs he looked at were Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude, Geoffry Wolff’s The Duke of Deception, and Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?.

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Niall August 2, 2010 at 2:40 am

Thanks very much indeed, Kim; that was indeed a good explanation. And thank you for such a useful, detailed answer.

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