'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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October 8, 2010

That Wraith, Memory



I'm sure a lot of people have already read, discussed, argued with, or (I hope) found comfort in 'The Plot Escapes Me,' an essay by novelist James Collins that was printed in The New York Times Book Review in September. {I remember that I read, and very much liked, his novel Beginner's Greek, to the extent that I bought a copy for my bookshelves after I read it, but sadly I don't remember anything about it.}

In a nutshell, he describes wanting to read, finding and being stuck in a book several years ago:

For the next few days, all I wanted to do was read “Perjury.” I tried to be a good sport about kayaking and fishing and roasting wieners with the kids, but I was always desperate to get back to Alger and Whittaker. The house where I was staying had been built on the edge of a lake, and I distinctly remember looking up from the book and seeing the sun sparkle on the clear, rippling water, then returning to the polluted gloom of the Case.
I remember it all, but there’s just one thing: I remember nothing about the book’s actual contents.
Before reading “Perjury,” I had an elementary understanding of the Hiss affair and the personalities involved; further, I knew that Hiss claimed to have known Chambers as “George Crosley.” Today, a couple of years after reading “Perjury,” I have an elementary understanding of the Hiss affair and the personalities involved; further, I know that Hiss claimed to have known Chambers as “George Crosley.” I have forgotten everything else. What was the point?

I have just realized something terrible about myself: I don’t remember the books I read. I chose “Perjury” as an example at random, and its neighbors on my bookshelf...could have served just as well. These are books I loved, but as with “Perjury,” all I associate with them is an atmosphere and a stray image or two, like memories of trips I took as a child.

He goes on to say that anecdotal evidence suggests he's not the only person with this problem. He isn't; my experience is so uncannily similar that Roberta Flack is singing 'Killing Me Softly' in my head right now...

I've been keeping a reading journal since college {essentially, it's a list of all the books I've read, plus some lists of books I want to read, and a few quotations or notes}.  I note the title, author, the date I finished the book, and a rating of sorts ('Wonderful,' 'Just OK,' etc.).  A few years ago, during another 'sabbatical' from work, I transcribed the lists into a sortable one on my computer, so now I can look up whether and when I read a particular book.  But mostly, I love to open the notebook at random and remember what I was reading at a given time. I can often remember that sparkle on the water, and how much I enjoyed a book, or how disappointed I was in it, but not much more than that. Especially with fiction. Whatever we think or feel, there's always someone else who thinks and feels that way too. Isn't there?

Mr. Collins turned to a friend, 'a neuroscientist and an old literature major,' who made him (oh, me too!) feel better about all this:

“There is a difference,” she said, “between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory. The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”
He is still frustrated, because he wants, sometimes, to actively retain the information he reads. So do I!  Part of the reason that I' decided (lazily and without enough application) to do some author-by-author reading projects was that I wanted to rebuild my sense of knowledge about these authors. (Nothing makes you feel more past it than talking to a smart teenager about his or her homework, as I just spent some time doing. The periodic table!  French possessive adjectives! Aaargh. Sigh. I knew all that, once!) And it has worked, I think, so I'll keep going.

One reader I know keeps her reading journal differently. A tiny notebook, with a page for each book, with a short comment about it. And maybe invoking some old study skills would help...

...Do not recline! First review the table of contents and index. Read actively, underlining and making notations in the text. Review what you have read, making notes (three to five pages for every hundred pages of text).

Some good ideas, surely. But “Do not recline”? Impossible.

{As you can see, I thought this was a great essay, and it's one I'll tuck away, folded into my reading journal...The painting is an image of Madame Recamier, which I borrowed from another post because it's so lovely.}

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1 comment:

Amy said...

I love this essay, mostly because I finally realized I'm not alone! I feel like I'm surrounded by people who can remember everything they've read, while, for me, Flannery O'Connor said it best: "I have been blessed with the gift of non-retention."

Thank you for visiting!

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