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.

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