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The trouble with memoir: Others were there too

September 12, 2008 |  1:11 pm

Thethingitself_0912_2"The Thing Itself" is a collection of essays in which Richard Todd meditates on the quest for authenticity. According to publisher Riverhead (an imprint of Penguin), the book is "a deeply personal literary memoir that explores what it means to live an authentic life in an increasingly detached and self-conscious world."

I don't have a copy of the book here, but from what I read in the reviews, it sounds perfectly pleasant. In the N.Y. Sun, Simon Blackburn writes that it belongs "in literate bathrooms across America." (My bathroom has literary aspirations.) Blackburn continues:

"The essays dissect the quest for authenticity in our search for objects (antiques, heirlooms), places (wilderness, countryside), and emotions (tears, celebrity lives), and finally in the mirror, as we seek to uncover that elusive beast, our true self. Richard Todd is pleasantly skeptical about the investments we nearly all make in this quest. ..."

The Chicago Tribune says, "Richard Todd is contemplative, learned, large-souled, generous-hearted, a cultural critic of skill and nuance." Reviewer Julia Keller finds much to like:

"The Thing Itself" includes some dazzling, beautifully crafted essays. Most start out gently, with a sort of loose, meandering, laid-back feel to them, but before you know it, you're being whipped about in the churning white water of Todd's serious thinking about things. What, he wonders, do we mean by authenticity? Or sincerity? How do objects confer status? Does something become more valuable just because it's old?

What might Todd think of old acquaintances? Like, for example, Howard Junker, a long-ago college roommate who has kept in intermittent touch with him over the years? Junker is the editor of the literary journal ZYZZYVA, and he blogs about what he sees as Todd's prevarications in the book....

Junker, who calls Todd "bright, clever, charming," winds up keeping a tally of life landmarks that Todd fails to mention:

After Amherst, he went to work on Madison Avenue, which he doesn't mention in his book.

He doesn't mention that he began to freelance; at one point, he was assigned by the Times Sunday Magazine to profile Kurt Vonnegut. My friend Jill Krementz was the photographer; she and Kurt eventually married.

Then Todd got a job on the Atlantic, which he doesn't mention. He worked his way up and even hoped, at one juncture, to be named editor. He wasn't. He doesn't mention that.

Nor that he began editing books....

I would have liked to have been told more about his life, as he led it, inauthentic or not.

Which shows that if you've lived a life that other people were watching, your memoir is never quite your own. Sure, you tell your own story to yourself, to your loved ones, about how you've lived. But outsiders may want to highlight other pieces of your narrative. They'll see other things as important, and if you omit them, your autobiography, in their eyes, becomes flawed, inauthentic even.

Let this be a warning to any starlet who has recently agreed to write books based on her own highly chronicled life.

— Carolyn Kellogg

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