Book Review: Memoir: A History

Memoir: A History
Ben Yagoda

The reason I picked up this book and started reading immediately was twofold: 1) I wanted to learn a little more about memoirs to understand how to approach my own and 2) because if I didn't read it quick-style, I was going to get a library fine. Library fines are embarrassing and I've been getting burned lately for my book bogarting. After finishing it, I think I had a better historical understanding of the memoir and how it's developed over time. The book did not, however, help me when it came to writing my own.

Memory had an entire chapter dedicated to it and for obvious reasons. It was sort of comforting to me, because my childhood memories were already limited. I thought perhaps I just had an inheritently bad memory, but memories fade for everyone when time passes. The memory chapter was my favorite and it piqued my interest even more on the topic. The fact that our memories are doomed to be faulty is an additional motivator to keep working at my memoir. That stuffs not going to be there forever!

There's a soft spot in my heart for books on writing. Sometimes this has a negative effect on my writing output. If you're reading than you're not writing, but I really can't help myself. I became familiar with Ben Yagoda when I learned about his book The Sound on the Page. I had started exploring fiction writing. Yet, as I am in the process of capturing the first 27 years of my life, I thought a book about memoirs would be quickly applicable and relevant.

The book was full of good information. For example I learned the difference between a memoir and biography. The first is about a certain theme or time span in life and the latter is about an entire life. I also enjoyed learning the four principles embodied in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's classic The Confessions. These principles, according to Yagoda, are commonplace now, but back in Rousseau's time were revolutionary. They are:
  1. a belief in total frankness
  2. an emphasis on the inner life of the mind and emotions rather than on the external of the the action
  3. a significant attention to childhood and youth
  4. a recognition that mundane matters, like a lie about a ribbon, could be as earth shattering as a grand battle, maybe even more so
The reading was tedious, but it's not Yagoda's fault. He has to cite many different memoirs and it often reads like a literature review. There are good parts nestled in between, to be sure. Yet, when he began about modern memoirs that I had read and was already interested in, the reading exhausted my attention and I really just wanted to get through it. I only scribbled down one quote from the Duke of Wellington:
"Publish and be damned." (p. 69)
All and all, this wasn't too bad of a book. I actually found a lot of memoirs that I'd like to read. Some are quite old, so finding them will require a little extra effort. The reading wasn't easy, but I am still definitely interested in Yagoda's other titles. I am particularly excited to read about the history of one of my favorite publications, the New Yorker. It's called About Town: The New Yorker And The World It Made. Publisher's Weekly called that one both "compelling" and "slow-moving", which is not a bad description of Memoir: A History as well.

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