Why We Love (Or Love To Hate) Memoirs

Ben Yagoda i i

hide captionAuthor Ben Yagoda teaches English, journalism and writing at the University of Delaware.

Ben Yagoda

Author Ben Yagoda teaches English, journalism and writing at the University of Delaware.

From St. Augustine's Confessions, to Frederick Douglass' journey from slave to abolitionist, to Sarah Palin's account of "going rogue," the experiences, triumphs and travails of others have enthralled readers for centuries. Now, with the explosion of blogging and reality television, it appears that everyone has a story to tell.

Journalist and author Ben Yagoda discusses his new book, Memoir: A History, which investigates our fascination with autobiography.

Excerpt: 'Memoir: A History'

Cover of 'Memoir'

U.S. memoirs are less dominant on the bestseller lists than their U.K. counterparts, but they make up for this in breadth. The American memoir is so capacious that it cannot be contained by just one category; this is the time of a million little subgenres. Even more popular than celebrity, misery, canine, methamphetamine, and eccentric-mother memoirs is the one memorably dubbed (by Sarah Goldstein) "shtick lit": that is to say, books perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it. The progenitor was arguably Henry David Thoreau, who in 1845 decided to live in a cabin he built near Walden Pond and document the experience in prose. (Fun fact: Thoreau actually spent two years in the cabin but collapsed them into one for the book, an early example of "the year of" memoir.) There have been numerous examples over the years, including Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887), for which she pretended to be insane; Jack London's The People of the Abyss (1903), for which he pretended to be poor; John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me (1961), for which he pretended to be black; George Plimpton's Paper Lion (1966), for which he pretended to be a professional football player; and Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back (2006), for which she pretended to be a man. As these examples suggest, the projects undertaken for such books have tended to grow ever more stuntlike over time. The trend was certainly borne out by the flowering of shtick lit at decade's end. The book that got the most attention — probably because of the excellent photo opportunity of a man wearing a robe and carrying a staff on Manhattan sidewalks — was The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Attempt to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs, who had previously published The Know-It-All: One's Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, a memoir of his attempt to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. (Jacobs's works partook of both popular titular conventions for such volumes: a play on the book and movie title The Year of Living Dangerously and a subtitle commencing "One Man's/One Woman's . . .") About as derivative as could be was a 2008 tome titled Reading the OED [Oxford English Dictionary]: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.

Many of these books had the element of a quest, notably Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, in which she described her efforts at transcendence by, well, eating, praying, and loving in exotic locales; Nielsen Book-Scan has counted more than four million copies sold. There was also Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States; Nine Ways to Cross a River, in which the author, Akiko Busch, describes swimming across, yes, nine rivers; The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World; Cabin Pressure: One Man's Desperate Attempt to Recapture His Youth as a Camp Counselor; and books that recounted the authors' attempts to master the games of bridge and pocket billiards. Others documented a period of time (usually a Thoreauvian year) spent under self-imposed limitations or other behavioral requirement. Thus Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life was about the effort of Barbara Kingsolver and her family to eat only home-grown or local food for a year.

It was joined by:

A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy

Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping

The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid

Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone

Norah Vincent's return to the genre brought it, full circle, back to Nellie Bly: Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin.

Julie Powell had a progression that in its typicalness was somehow archetypal: several years earlier she created a blog devoted to her attempt to spend a year cooking recipes only from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Then she published a memoir based on the blog — Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. Powell then wrote another memoir, about her experience learning to be a butcher, which was scheduled to be published to coincide with the release of Nora Ephron's movie adaptation of Julie [Amy Adams] & Julia [Meryl Streep]. Powell's second book inevitably recalls Bill Buford's memoir of working with chef Mario Batali, Heat. Child's own memoir, My Life in France, was posthumously published in 2006; this was followed by a memoir from her editor, Judith Jones, and one from Child's chef and TV producer. There was also a memoir by cookbook author Marcella Hazan, the fourth memoir by food editor and writer Ruth Reichl, and a food-related memoir by Maya Angelou. That was Angelou's eighth memoir overall since I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings appeared in 1969. That may or may not be a record, depending on how one classifies the books Shirley MacLaine has written chronicling her past, present, and future lives, the eleventh of which came out in 2007.

Excerpted from Memoir by Ben Yagoda with permission from Riverhead Books.

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A History

by Ben Yagoda

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