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The International Writers Magazine
: Review

My Life in Letters: A Collection
Ryan K. Smith
Hopewell & Co., 2003,
$49.95 (cloth) $19.99 (paper).
is for history

This is a curious publication. Falling somewhere between memoir and historical scholarship, the collection features eight essays culled from the author’s school days. Yet none of the pieces have been revised or edited; they ostensibly appear as they did when submitted as class assignments. Thus we are presented with a patchwork of random topics, erratic prose, and derivative research interspersed with occasional bits of flair.

As scholarship, the book holds little value. But it is a surprisingly absorbing spectacle, and it does offer a small window into our modern educational system. The author’s brief introduction fails to situate the collection. Smith describes the project as a “retrospective” and outlines his studies as a high school student in Florida, an undergraduate at a nearby college, and a graduate student in American History at Virginia and Delaware. He thanks his instructors and then proceeds into the essays with a quotation on “intellect” from Emerson.

The essays themselves are divided into three non-chronological sections: “History,” “Criticism,” and “Miscellaneous.” Most pieces focus on American history, though world history, sociology, and literary theory make appearances. Nearly all are embarrassingly stilted, and however valuable as class exercises, they make for thin public reading. In “A 1920’s Photograph as Primary Source Material,” Smith demonstrates a newfound grasp of the basic distinction between primary and secondary historical sources. In “Blade Runner and Cognitive Dissonance Theory,” he attempts to relate course readings with the character development featured in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film.

The collection’s most egregious selection - a study of global deforestation - appears to have been clumsily transcribed from an encyclopedia entry. Where these pieces contain too few references to relevant scholarship, others veer into a tedious overload of historiography, as in an essay on the religious dimension of the American Revolution. The shifting range from high school to graduate school is consistently jarring. The collection’s high point is a comparative study of three nineteenth-century scientific fads - phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism. This essay links the three phenomena in an imaginative way, though it too suffers from stiff phrasing and lean source material. In the end, the author’s energies might have been best served by revising and expanding this particular piece and then submitting it to an appropriate academic journal.

Few academic readers will need to peruse any more high school or college research papers than they regularly do. But Smith’s effort does uniquely assemble the broader track of one student’s “career,” despite the collection’s lack of attention to chronology. As useful as it may be on this score, one can only hope that this apparently well-intentioned book does not herald a tedious new era for the memoir.
Review by Ray Schmidt
The Library of Virginia

© Ryan K. Smith. April 2004

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