Book Review

Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda

Photo on 22-04-2014 at 11.51 #4

This will probably be my last blog for a while, as I have a couple of essays to write over the next two weeks. I read Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History as the last piece of preparatory reading for one of them.

Memoir is not a memoir – it is not the life of Yagoda, it is the history of memoir itself. It is a chronological recounting of the history of autobiographical writing from Classical texts of ancient Greece and Rome, through Saint Augustine’s and Rousseau’s Confessions, narratives of globalisation and exploration, descriptions of life in slavery, the rise of the political memoir, first world war memoir, celebrity autobiography, misery memoir and through to however one categorises the type of autobiographical books that were popular when this was published in 2009 and still are today.

Yagoda’s book is informed and interesting – he charts the changes in popularity of fiction and non-fiction, the intentions of memoir and, most significantly, the vast alterations that have happened regarding who writes them and when in their lives*.

This is a broad, literary historical book, it recounts many anecdotes and many events with wit, and invites consideration of many texts I had never heard of. I found it at its most interesting when it grappled with the ideological ideas of truth and truth-telling, the ideas of representation of others and the self, verification, and why tastes have changed to prefer non-fiction as a genre. However, though there was enough of this to keep me interested, and the discussion of scandals and individual books and people were enjoyable, what I wanted more of was the discussion of theory. Which, to be honest, is found in David Shields’ excellent Reality Hunger. I was hoping this would be a rehashing of that, really, but to be honest I expect many people would prefer the straight-forward chronological and anecdotal development of Memoir: A History.

This book is good, yes, and offers many interesting opinions and facts about the history of autobiographical writing – its pitfalls, its strengths and its importance. “Interesting” is the word I keep coming back to – it is interesting but not enervating, not life-changing, not astounding. But should one expect every book to be so?

A good read. And did what I hoped it would for my essay.


* B. S. Johnson’s Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs? was published in 1973 when he was 40 – no one would think that was too young now!

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