But for Some Stolen Pears: A History of Memoir

January 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Daniel Mendelsohn offers a lengthy review essay in the latest New Yorker in response to Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History.  The review itself offers quite an intelligent history of the genre—and the controversies that have swirled.  Here is Mendelsohn on the founder of memoir, St. Augustine:

It all started late one night in 371 A.D., in a dusty North African town miles from anywhere worth going, when a rowdy sixteen-year-old—the offspring of an interfaith marriage, with a history of bad behavior—stole some pears off a neighbor’s tree. To all appearances, it was a pointless misdemeanor. The thief, as he ruefully recalled some thirty years later, was neither poor nor hungry, and the pears weren’t all that appealing, anyway. He stole them, he realized, simply to be bad. “It was foul, and I loved it,” he wrote. “I loved my own undoing.”  …  However trivial the crime and perverse its motivations, this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences: for the teen-ager’s future, for the history of Christianity and Western philosophy, and for the layout of your local Barnes & Noble superstore.

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