Yagoda explains the books purpose, “Memoir has become the central form of the culture: not only the way stories are told, but the way arguments are put forth, products and properties marketed, ideas floated, acts justified, reputations constructed or salvaged. The sheer volume of memoirs is unprecedented; the way the books were trailed by an unceasing stream of contention, doubt, hype, and accusations is distressing. Yet every single one of the books, and every piece of the debate about them, had a historical precedent. How did we come to this pass? The only way to answer that question is to go back a couple of thousand years and tell the story from the beginning."
And he does. Beginning with Caesar’s Commentaries and the Confessions of St. Augustine, Yagoda traces the evolution of the memoir form up to the present day. He sees Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book Robinson Crusoe, based on real-life Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, considered the first novel in English, a key in shaping the modern memoir. As Publishers Weekly explained, this fictional memoir helped usher in real accounts of, among other things, adventures on the high seas and capture by hostile Indians, it is memoir's fraught relationship with the truth—which implicated both readers (who took Robinson Crusoe to be a true tale) and writers (embellishing or inventing particularly sordid episodes in their lives)—that explains the memoir's longevity, popularity and breadth.”
Yagoda explores what he sees as a “malleability about the truth” which grows out of our desire for “authenticity and credibility” and to be entertained at the same time “which can lead some writers to exaggeration or invention.” The result can be what he calls “fraudulent lives” like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, but more often is produced by memories which are, “…by nature untrustworthy: contaminated not merely by gaps, but by distortions and fabrications that inevitably and blamelessly creep into it.”