Imagine a day when crowds of Americans—New Yorkers, no less—congregate on the misty docks of the Atlantic in breathless anticipation of the arrival of…a book. It’s the 1840s, and people have gathered to meet a ship from London carrying the latest installment of Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. As the vessel comes into sight, the people start to tremble and shout. “Does Little Nell yet live?” they call out, achingly wedded to the destiny of the novel’s heroine. Oh, you’re thinking, pity the little 19th-century cretins. After all, such reckless suspension of disbelief is hard to fathom today. Yet the craving for storytelling is still with us, skeptics included. And that, says autobiographer Jill Ker Conway, explains our current bottomless appetite for the genre of memoir. We can safely sink into the boundless tragedy of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes because, well, it’s “real.” Our cynicism is spirited away by the magic Based-on-a-True-Story elixir. In her new book, When Memory Speaks, Conway tracks the development of the modern autobiography—something she knows a thing about, having published two memoirs of her Australian childhood and two volumes of women’s autobiographical writings. Sometimes Conway’s bookish brilliance (she was president of Smith College and now teaches at M.I.T.) muddles her writing with academic meanderings, but she offers smart insight into the allure of the memoir and the differences between male and female autobiographers. Listen to her read at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919; and at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, at Lammas, 1607 17th St. NW. Free. (202) 775-8218. (Amanda Ripley)