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Reading Autobiography

Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, Second Edition

Sidonie Smith
Julia Watson
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition, Second
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Reading Autobiography
    Book Description:

    Thoroughly updated, the second edition of Reading Autobiography is the most complete assessment of life narrative in its myriad forms. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson lay out a sophisticated, theoretical approach to life writing and the components of autobiographical acts, including memory, experience, identity, embodiment, space, and agency.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7345-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 Life Narrative: Definitions and Distinctions
    (pp. 1-20)

    What could be simpler to understand than the act of people representing what they know best, their own lives? Yet this act is anything but simple, for the teller of his or her own story becomes, in the act of narration, both the observing subject and the object of investigation, remembrance, and contemplation. We might best approach life narrative, then, as a moving target, a set of shifting self-referential practices that, in engaging the past, reflect on identity in the present. We intend in this book to complicate ordinary understandings of the concept and practices of self-referential narrative. A first...

  6. 2 Autobiographical Subjects
    (pp. 21-62)

    Life writing, as act and text, seems transparently simple. Yet it is intriguingly complex. In what follows we explore a set of concepts helpful for understanding the sources and dynamic processes of autobiographical subjectivity:




    Space Embodiment


    The life narrator depends on access to memory to narrate the past in such a way as to situate that experiential history within the present. Memory is thus the source, authenticator, and destabilizer of autobiographical acts. But what is memory and how does it work?

    As memory researchers from fields as diverse as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and philosophy have argued,...

  7. 3 Autobiographical Acts
    (pp. 63-102)

    We recognize that memory, experience, identity, spatial location, embodiment, and agency are not separable constituents of autobiographical subjectivity. They are all implicated in one another. But disentangling them in chapter 2, however artificially, allowed us to frame the psychic, the temporal, the spatial, the material, and the transformative dimensions of autobiographical subjectivity. Moreover, the concepts of memory, experience, identity, spatiality, embodiment, and agency enable us to begin probing the complexity of what happens in a particular autobiographical act.

    Let’s situate the autobiographical act in a story, a story in time and place. This situatedness is especially crucial since life narratives...

  8. 4 Life Narrative in Historical Perspective
    (pp. 103-126)

    Our goal in this chapter is to trace the production of autobiographical subjects over time. This history does not claim to trace a simple chronology of successive notions of personhood. Competing versions of personhood overlap and intersect at a given historical moment. Our focus is double, on demarcating autobiographical subjects in their historical context and on noting the emergence of various autobiographical genres through which those subjects fashion themselves. Our aims in constructing this history are both to identify exemplary autobiographical texts and to explore the kinds of subjects those narratives inscribe.

    We look beyond individual texts to the formation...

  9. 5 In the Wake of the Memoir Boom
    (pp. 127-166)

    Over the past two decades, life writing has become a prized commodity in print and online venues. Publishers seek the next hot topic and market particular kinds of memoirs to niche audiences—for instance, coming-out stories to gay and lesbian readerships. Bookstores in airports and online companies such as bring these stories of other people’s lives to customers whose responses may range from feel-good benevolence to titillation to compassion fatigue. To illustrate the range and variety of life stories, Appendix A, Genres of Life Narrative, provides brief definitions of modes, historical and contemporary, in writing and other media. While...

  10. 6 The Visual-Verbal-Virtual Contexts of Life Narrative
    (pp. 167-192)

    Autographics. Installations. Performance art. Blogs. StoryCorps. Facebook. MySpace. PostSecret.LiveJournal.YouTube. “This I Believe.” SecondLife. OpenSocial. Web cam documentaries. Th ese are just some of the diverse forms utilizing new media and locations for visual self-presentation and self-narration. As the platforms, templates, and modes of communicative exchange increase and intersect hypertextually, they add to the forms of visual life narrative produced during the twentieth century virtual forms of social networking systems that link people around the world instantaneously and interactively. What subjectivity becomes in the fluidity of digital environments is a topic that will occupy scholars in coming decades.

    We cannot do...

  11. 7 A History of Autobiography Criticism, Part I: Theorizing Autobiography
    (pp. 193-212)

    Scholarly books and articles about autobiographical narrative have appeared at an increasing rate in the past sixty years, particularly during the past three decades. The year 1980 saw the publication of two bibliographical essays that interpreted the history and shifting preoccupations of criticism up to that time: the essay appended to William C. Spengemann’sForms of Autobiography:Episodes in the History of a Literary Genreand “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment,” the introductory essay toAutobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical,edited by James Olney. Spengemann situated the first surge of critical interest in the practice of life narrative in the...

  12. 8 A History of Autobiography Criticism, Part II: Expanding Autobiography Studies
    (pp. 213-234)

    The previous chapter tracked the emergence of autobiography studies through critics and theorists who were influential in the development of the field during what we have described as the first and second waves of autobiography studies. In the past decade scholarly work in the field has so burgeoned that an overview of critical writing formative of a third wave of autobiography criticism since the 1990s will not capture its richness and complexity or the provocative terms of debate within literary and cultural studies.¹ Instead, we define a set of theoretical terms frequently invoked in recent explorations of life writing and...

  13. 9 A Tool Kit: Twenty-four Strategies for Reading Life Narratives
    (pp. 235-252)

    You pick up a memoir in your local bookstore that looks interesting and read the opening page. Or you’re asked to read a well-known autobiography for a college course or exam. Or you come upon a personal narrative in an archive you’re perusing for a history project. Or you find yourself a captive listener at a family gathering during which people regale one another with stories of the past.

    Given the complexity of autobiographical acts that we have charted in chapters 2 and 3, what kind of questions might you ask as you become immersed in these autobiographical narratives?How,...

  14. Appendix A. Sixty Genres of Life Narrative
    (pp. 253-286)
  15. Appendix B. Group and Classroom Projects
    (pp. 287-294)
  16. Appendix C. Journals and Internet Resources
    (pp. 295-296)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 297-306)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 307-358)
  19. Index
    (pp. 359-394)