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A Review of Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

Today, I (Eric C) am getting to a book I’ve been meaning to review for a while, Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History. “Wait,” you may be asking. “What does this have to do with war? Or violence?”

Well, not much. There are exactly two paragraphs describing war memoirs from World War I and World War II. (In short, there were a ton of World War I memoirs--Storm of Steel, War is War, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, etc--and “a smaller group of noteworthy memoirs” from World War II, with more fiction leading the literary way.)

So why am I reviewing it? Because my “War Memoir” project of the last year and a half or so demands that I know something about memoirs.  Memoirs dominate “fiction” in today’s literary world. If you want to read about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, you must read a memoir. (Matt Gallagher asked on Twitter a few weeks ago why there hasn’t been a “definitive” war novel yet. That’s my main theory as to why.)

With that in mind, I picked up Memoir: A History looking for a guide to the larger world of memoirs and it delivers. Memoir: A History is comprehensive, thorough, and effortlessly readable the whole way through, written in Yagoda’s very casual, very readable prose. (I’m now a pretty big Yagoda fan, because he always seems to write about the topics--The New Yorker, writing, memoirs, grammar--I’m obsessed with. Either way, I’ve now read--and enjoyed--all four of his books.)

So to answer the other question: should you read Memoir: A History? If you have any interest in memoirs, then yes. If not, then no. But any English major, writer, wanna-be memoirist or novelist, or prose reader in general would do well picking this short history up. Memoir: A History entertained me with precise details, clever anecdotes and concise histories for over 250 pages, handling a controversial medium with balance.

Which brings me to the last issue. Memoirs, since memoirists started writing them, have been controversial. First, the controversy was, “Who is vain enough to write an entire book on themselves?” That objection is now quaint and no longer seriously debated. The more serious concern is, “How come none of them are accurate?” Which leads to a larger issue, memoirs: love them, or hate them? (I’m in the hate them category.)

Which side does Ben Yagoda take? He doesn’t. Yagoda points out the good memoirs and the bad ones. He points out their flaws, and their dubious history; he is fair throughout. You might think I’d hate this. I didn’t, it made the book more honest, and feel more true.

But what about those arguments? Come back next week, when I’ll apply what I learned from Yagoda’s Memoir: A History to the modern, post-9/11 war memoir.

One comment

Here’s my thought: It’s weird that novel-lengthed fiction books must be memoirs, when most short stories are memoirs they are just called “fiction”. It is two sides of the same coin, we all know that fiction is about the author, but the fiction element allows the author to break from the anchors of truth to tell a better story. Good review.