Required reading: confessions

Lance Armstrong did it on Oprah's couch. St Augustine did it in AD 397. Admit it: we're fascinated by confessions.

In the ever-spinning, infinitely fast news 21st-century news environment, one woman has become the go-to broadcaster for public confessions. Last week, it was Lance Armstrong's turn to take to Oprah's couch, where (as if you didn't know) he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs to help him win the Tour de France a record-breaking seven times.

Armstrong's appearance was a reminder of just why the public confession is always mesmerising: the personal unburdening, the need to explain, the search for an absolution, however imperfect. But there can be no proper understanding of the modern-day Oprah tell-all without an appreciation of the greatest confessions of history.

Start way back with The Confessions of St Augustine. Written in 397, this is the legendary text in which St Augustine reviews his young life with regret, chastising himself for being lustful, lazy, and for believing in astrology. Indeed, St Augustine even chides himself for being unable to remember the sins he committed in early childhood, making for a pitch of confession that even the most sin-laden 21st-century celebrity would find hard to match.

Next, turn to The Confessions by John Jacques Rousseau: perhaps the most famous literary confession of all, it's really better described as western literature's first modern autobiography. Rousseau's description of his life and intellectual development (the son of a watchmaker from Geneva, he travelled Europe working as a tutor in his twenties) formed part of the intellectual foundation of European romanticism and the formal foundation of the novel.

Of course, Rousseau can't be held responsible for the confession novels that have followed, from Confessions of a Shopaholic, the first of Sophie Kinsella's demonically successful Shopaholic chick lit series, to The New Confessions, the English novelist William Boyd's brilliant 1987 novel about a life wrapped around the great events of the 20th century.

Feeling inspired after all this confession? Have something you want to get of your chest? Turn to Confess for Cash: The Inside Story on How to Write and Sell Confession Stories by Pauline Smith to turn your dirty secrets into a fortune.