Ben Yagoda’s history of the memoir genre should make any other survey redundant. He’s performed a great service, not only to readers and writers but also to the new field of nonfiction/memoir studies.
As promised previously, I will describe not only what I learned from reading the book but also from reading it on the Kindle. First, the content, then the form.
You would think a book that consists mostly of plot summaries and catalogs of other books could be deadly dull. I admit that there were a few times I skimmed past pages filled mostly with book titles. But the author’s own enthusiasm for his discoveries (previous books describing memoirs in a certain period and privileged information about sales numbers) and his spritely style kept me thoroughly engaged.
The structure, which includes both British and American works over centuries of time interspersed by a short summary of contemporary theory, and a conclusion that lists all memoirists and autobiographers, serves its purpose well. Yagoda has written the definitive research companion for those of us fascinated as much by the popularity of the genre as by individual memoirs.
Here are some gems gleaned from the book:
“As for fiction . . .it’s hard to find an important American novel that’s not some variation on a memoir.”
“Autobiography more than any other genre, trades on its authenticity and credibility. If those qualities are understood to be lacking in a memoir, why would anyone possibly take it seriously or even bother to read it?”
“In experiment after experiment, study after study, subsequent phychologists have gone a good deal farther, establishing that memory is by nature untrustworthy: contaminated not merely by gaps, but by distortions and fabrications that inevitably and blamelessly creep into it. It is itself a creative writer, cobbling together ‘actual’ memories, beliefs about the world, cues from a variety of sources, and memories of previous memories to plausibly imagine what might have been, and then, in a master stroke, packing this scenario to the mind as the real one.”
“C.S. Barclay has observed that most of our autobiographical memories are ‘reconstructions aimed at preserving the essential integrity’ of our sense of ourselves and our histories. They are, he wrote, largely ‘true but inaccurate.'”
Psychologist Daniel Schacter in his book The Seven Sins of Memory identifies five persistent memory biases:
“Consistency and change biases show how our theories about ourselves can lead us to reconstruct the past as overly similar to or different from, the present. Hindsight biases reveal that recollections of past events are filtered by current knowledge. Egocentric biases illustrate the powerful role of the self in orchestrating perceptions and memories of reality. And stereotypical biases demonstrate how generic memories shape interpretations of the world, even when we are unaware of their existence or influence.”
“In fact, there is an inherent and irresolvable conflict between the capabilities of memory and the demands of narrative. The latter demands specifics; the former is really bad at them.”
Yagoda describes humorist memoirists from Twain to Sedaris who have created an enormously influential voice of “near-nuclear power of a self-deprecating narrator deploying hyperbole based on shrewd and perceptive observation.”
1854 illustrates the difference between American and English traditions in memoir because it is the date when two contrasting memoirs were published–P.T. Barnum’s (the self-promoter) and John Stuart Mill (who stipulated that his memoirs be published only after his death).
For me, the section on memory itself, from which most of the quotes above come, and the section on the American memoir craze of the 1950’s, with its rosy contrast to today’s “misery memoirs” were most telling. Also, every age in which memoir is popular becomes an age in which memoir-bashing becomes an indoor sport also. Anyone who aspires to understand his or her own life inside the spirit of the age needs to read this book.
Now, a word about the process of reading and reviewing from a Kindle copy of a book.
1. I can search the text! Once, I wanted to find a reference to Mary Karr. All I had to do was go to Menu, type in the name, and locate the four places where it appears. I could go to anyone of the four by moving the cursor.
2. I was able to underline portions as I read. Then, in order to share them here, I could locate them and type them out.
1. A good index at the back of a hard copy book can serve the same purpose as a searchable text.
2. Navigation in the highlights is pretty “clunky” while still serving as an improvement over flipping back through many pages of underlining.
Bottom Line: I recommend the book in any form. And I think I will find the electronic copy adequate to my needs. So, I guess the Kindle gets a thumbs up too!