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Memoir: A History Hardcover – November 12, 2009

4.4 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Yagoda, biographer of Will Rogers, presents a spirited account of a form of writing that since its inception has been one of the most contested and most popular. Without dwelling too heavily on the genre's most recent scandals, Yagoda begins with the fifth-century Confessions of Saint Augustine, still cited as a prime example. Autobiography, Yagoda says, helped give rise to the invention of the novel in 1719 when Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, written by himself. While this fictional memoir helped usher in real accounts of, among other things, adventures on the high seas and capture by hostile Indians, it is memoir's fraught relationship with the truth—which implicated both readers (who took Robinson Crusoe to be a true tale) and writers (embellishing or inventing particularly sordid episodes in their lives)—that explains the memoir's longevity, popularity and breadth, says Yagoda. In a fascinating break from his chronological study, Yagoda explores the fluid definition of truth and whether, given memory's malleability, it's possible to achieve it in any memoir. With its mixture of literary criticism, cultural history and just enough trivia, Yagoda's survey is sure to appeal to scholars and bibliophiles alike. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

The number of memoirs published over the last four years increased 400 percent, and literary and cultural critic Yagoda wanted to know why. His quest resulted in an astute and entertaining history of autobiography, the most maligned, exploited, downright scandalous, yet irresistible of genres. Yagoda ponders the vagaries of memory and the difference between inner truths and hard facts. He traces the tradition back to the fifth-century classic The Confessions of Saint Augustine; designates Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s as the first “utterly modern” memoir; and praises the autobiographies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Frederick Douglass. On the contemporary front, Yagoda identifies categories ridiculous and sublime, including misery, addiction, canine, eccentric-mother, outlaw, and redemption memoirs. Fake memoirs, including James Frey’s, get fresh treatment, as does the indictment of memoirs as merely narcissistic and whiny. Yagoda is at his peppery best as he resurrects overlooked memoirs and chronicles the profound impact courageous memoirs about race, religion, sexuality, mental illness, abuse, and many other sensitive, once taboo subjects have had on our collective social conscience, inspiring and sustaining positive change. --Donna Seaman
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (November 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159448886X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594488863
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,142,878 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book primarily on the basis of Jonathan Yardley's review in "The Washington Post". I used to seek out memoirs and over the period of about 1975 to 1995 a goodly percentage of the books I read consisted of literate memoirs (including "Out of Step" by Jonathan Yardley). The genre was a quiet, somewhat quirky little nook of books, and I welcomed the insights into the lives and minds of interesting and intelligent people who were not really famous, or at least not famous enough to write and market autobiographies. Then something happened. Whatever it was, suddenly every issue of the "New York Times Book Review" featured, it seemed, yet another memoir - and many of them dealt with "victimhood": how the author had been physically or psychologically battered by life, by family, by drugs, by being a disfavored race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or sex or sexual orientation. The genre had shifted from the stories of people who had done something notable or admirable to the stories of people who had had things done to them. The telling may have been therapeutic for their authors, but the books did nothing for me. And the fact that they found a market in contemporary America was/is rather alarming.

The centerpiece of Ben Yagoda's MEMOIR: A HISTORY is indeed the recent "memoir boom", with particular emphasis on how it has been bloated by the memoirs of victims, narcissists, and celebrity-wannabes. Yagoda reviews many of the entries that have marked this boom, and he offers some insights into why it has occurred, but he never really explains it (that probably would require a tome of cultural psychology that might well be impossible, at least while the phenomenon remains in full bloom).

The book reflects a considerable amount of background reading and/or research.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
How many memoirists should be listed in the index for a work to qualify as a 'comprehensive' history of the memoir form? Ben Yagoda is taking no risks here - 625 is an impressive total, even allowing for the fact it contains separate entries for Tori and Candi Spelling. Unfortunately, the sheer, all-inclusive sprawl of this book is also a weakness. The effort of cramming mention of over 600 memoirists into just 270 pages of text appears to have absorbed most of the author's energy, so that the majority of the book is long on fact, with little analysis.

This is unfortunate because, when Professor Yagoda does engage in analysis, his comments are astute. His insights about the fallibility of memory and different degrees of misrepresentation in memoir are smart, interesting, and to the point. These were the most interesting sections of the book.

Other chapters read more like an extended catalog, a listing of titles and authors, with insufficient commentary to liven up the reading experience. The organization of the book is a little eccentric; chapter headings are loosely thematic, but the underlying logic is unclear at times. I still can't figure out how Ulysses S. Grant, P.T. Barnum, and Mark Twain migrated from Chapter 4 (The United States of Autobiography) to Chapter 6 (Eminent Victorian Autobiography), or why Yagoda felt it necessary to split his exploration of truth and the fallibility of memory into two separate chapters. Actually, there is a plausible explanation for this, which is that Chapter 5 ("Interlude: Truth, Memory and Autobiography") was inserted as a kind of lollipop for the reader, to break up what would otherwise have been a pretty lengthy dry stretch.
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Format: Hardcover
In this age of "boo-hoo" journalism, it seems anyone who has ever been the subject of abuse, illness, or loss --- or who knows someone in such conditions --- has or soon will come out with a memoir. A quick look at the new book section in my local library shows MY JOURNEY WITH FARRAH: A Story of Life, Love, and Friendship, written by Alana Stewart and published less than two months after the pop culture icon died in June 2009, and Patrick Swayze's posthumous THE TIME OF MY LIFE, released just 15 days after he passed away. Can it be long before we see something from one of Tigers Woods's consorts?

You might think that such gut-spilling is a relatively new phenomenon, but according to Ben Yagoda's MEMOIR: A History --- a fascinating, well, biography of the genre --- that's not the case by a long shot. From the days of the classic philosophers through medieval times, men (mostly) have been telling their stories of conquest, failure, redemption, doubt and/or belief with the notion that the world (much smaller in those days) was anxiously waiting to know their thoughts.

There are many subgenres that have enjoyed their "fad-dom" over the years, such as the founding fathers, war heroes and former slaves. In contemporary times, we have the "extreme misery memoir," which chronicles "dysfunction, abuse, poverty, addiction, mental illness, and/or bodily ruin."

How much detail should be told and how much should be kept between the writer and his maker? And how will that decision color the reader's perception? According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his own CONFESSIONS, he "presents himself as he wants to be seen, not at all as he is.
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