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The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again 0th Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1555974893
ISBN-10: 1555974899
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Respected critic Birkerts has written an insightful appreciation of the memoir form, works that occupy a growing... place in our literary culture. Analyzing five ways different writers have chosen to transform their memories into coherent narrative, Birkerts discerns the underlying principle of the memoir form: balancing two perspectives by revisiting significant events in the past to discover a pattern in one's present life. Nabokov, Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard are what he calls the Lyrical Seekers, who use sensuous apprehension to explore the nature of being. Frank Conroy's Stop-Time is one of the examples of the coming-of-age memoir, as is Birkerts's own My Sky Blue Trades. Fathers and sons, e.g., Paul Auster, Geoffrey Wolff and Blake Morrison, are distinguished from mothers and daughters, e.g., Jamaica Kincaid and Vivian Gornick. Finally, works by Mary Karr and Lucy Grealy are among those illustrating the category of trauma and memory. The appeal of this slim volume lies in Birkert's graceful prose and lucid analysis. Written for the general reader, it artfully conveys the basics of the craft and will be a particular boon to reading groups. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

Time in memoir? Most analyses of this maligned literary form revolve around the fact-versus-fiction debate, but sophisticated literary critic Birkerts takes a deeper look, arguing convincingly that “the search for patterns and connections is the real point—and glory—of the genre.” Drawing on epiphanies experienced both while reading outstanding literary memoirs and while writing his own, My Sky Blue Trades (2002), Birkerts explains why and how literary memoirs bend time, abandoning the chronological for the circular. Furthermore, Birkerts observes, memory itself is nonlinear and unpredictable: one shocking hour can resonate more powerfully than an entire decade. Writing with ardor, erudition, and conviction, he cites memoirs by such masters as Nabokov, Woolf, and Dillard; celebrates “the constraint of the actual”; explains the difference between sequential events and story; muses over why so many memoirs focus on family struggles and the writer’s coming-of-age; and defines a subgenre, the “traumatic memoir.” Birkerts’ enlightening literary anatomy deepens appreciation for the memoir as it reveals how writers turn the indelible times of their lives into art that is timeless. --Donna Seaman
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Product Details

  • Series: Art of...
  • Paperback: 120 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press (December 26, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555974899
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555974893
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #66,965 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I write fiction -- not memoir -- but I found Birkerts's book applicable to writing in general, and very nicely paired with the Graywolf Press book by Joan Silber, "Art of Time in Fiction." Birkerts looks not only at chronology -- in particular, the blending of present and past perspectives and insights that is essential to memoir -- but also at loose categories of memoir, with chapters on mother-daughter memoirs, father-son memoirs, trauma narratives, coming-of-age stories, and "paradises lost" (with some interesting distinctions on the lyrical writings of, say, Nabokov and Annie Dillard). By the end, I felt like Birkerts had showed me how to look beyond content to form in memoir, while prodding me with a list of great future reads.
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Format: Paperback
This is the best craft book for memoir writers, an intellectual journey with top-flight guides: Nabokov, Karr, Auster, Diller and more. Birkets digs deep into the nature of memory and shows how the greats break many of the "rules" to which new writers cling.
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This book came into my life at exactly the right time. I'm writing a memoir and dealing with the perpetual problem of time and memory.
Swen Birkert's book is a masterpiece: well-written, informative, well-referenced and an inspiration for memorists. I highly recommend it.
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What's the difference between a novel and a memoir?

A novel can be autobiographical, drawn completely from life remembered; a memoir is of course made of memory shaped and dramatized. The Art of Time in Memoir posits that memoir is defined and distinguished by its dual perspective: the writer in the present looking back and reflecting, trying to understand a past version of herself or himself.

In Birkerts' focus on reflection, on how different writers successfully assemble "the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization," he picks some work in which this is very subtle and artful. For instance, in Jamaica Kincaid's novel Annie John--which he chooses to read as a memoir--there's no overt musing but he argues that the book is crafted so that "emblematic" situations "carry reflective weight."

Birkerts shows that good memoirs, far from being defined by the easy charges of "navel gazing" or "score settling," are serious devotions to understanding and to finding meaning. Through memoir's "careful manipulation of vantage point," Birkerts writes, "it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life."

The most useful writing books often are concise, like this one, rather than exhaustive (and exhausting). And although Birkerts focuses on one key concept, time, he touches in a profound way on other issues in the genre. The Art of Time in Memoir is a sophisticated explication of a genre that is itself an exciting art form.
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while I did find some helpful gems in the first 2 chapters, the book then veered into some very complex theories on this topic which felt more like a philosophy lesson than a tool for a writer at work on a memoir.

Birkerts is extremely intelligent and has clearly given this subject a lot of thought. his writing is clear and his points are made well.

as I am more interested in technique than theory, this book, though it's a good one, wasn't for me.
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I loved this book. Very quickly I found myself in conflict (thus the big trouble reference in the review title). Do I stop reading after three paragraphs so that I can write, as I am inspired to do? Do I keep writing? Do I pull my work and begin to edit? As a student in an MFA program, I found this to be a very helpful book, especially as I had been wrestling with the exact issue for a while, and so had a strong contextual need for the instruction offered by Birkerts. Thanks!
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Format: Paperback
COMMENTS REVIEW: My summary of comments thus far (after reading most of 30 comments) is that this book is worth the investment for the student of writing.

I once had a mathematics professor in a trigonometry course. For those having labored over calculus you understand the connection between trig and advanced calc. I asked rather naively “I want to be a programmer, why memorize and learn how to derive formulas when I just have to program a formula to do all of this for users.” His reply stuck like tomato stains on a guilty 3 year old, “it increases sophistication” he said!

We can see that this book is a bit more sophisticated than a “Memoirs in Three Easy Steps” sort of book, so it’s not for everyone. But for any writer that has been struggling with something, perhaps enough to drive them into a college classroom full of other struggling writers, this book seems to be capable of inducing many “ah ha” break-through moments, answering lurking questions, and even rewiring one’s approach to writing a memoir—this is a good thing.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A luminous, lapidary little book. Part psychology, part literary criticism, part philosophical inquiry into the nature of our experience of our existence--and oh yes, a little part instruction manual for would-be memoir writers.

Articulate and poetic AND fast-paced. And inspiring! To the wannabe writer in each of us or the reader in all of us.

Deserves to become one of those brief classics like Strunk and White, Dava Sobel's "Longitude," Harvey Penick's "Little Red Book" or Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind." In the clarity of its insight and incisiveness of its prose, also reminds me a bit of Witold Rybczynski or Alain de Botton.

Warmly recommended...worth reading even if you don't think you have any particular interest in its subject.
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