Remembering Books

I am surprised at how little I remember the books I read. There is only a few scraps of each that remains after I’ve devoured them, and sometimes I do not know what scrap goes with what book. For example I have iridule seared across my brain–inexplicable. Perhaps, even, inexcusable. I have no idea what it means or how it got there. It is, however, in my brain. Is there a more curious incident?

I wonder if it is because I read too much or if it is because I read too little. Perhaps my mind is not equipped for remembering all the small, minute and titillating peculiarities that I collect through my endless travels. If that is the case then I cannot help but notice that I share something similar with the Family Sciuridae. I have a romp through a book, and then at its conclusion I declare–like Milton’s Satan–that even if I do not remember, exactly, every carefully tended paragraph I still enjoyed myself. “What though the field be lost?”

The conversations I have with people, alive and in person, spare me this sort of introspection. I can neither remember what I had for breakfast–though a nearby plate confirms that it was several blueberry muffins–or what the conversation was like. I have a vague feeling of either well-contemplated execution or the lack thereof. But beyond a general feeling I cannot think of a tangible thing to say. I do not care. I console myself, ‘such is life!’ If I had a photographic memory then, of course, life would be different but I do not so it is not. But then I look over to the books I have read, boughten and–I hazily recall–enjoyed. If I had to stop and think I cannot seem to gather more than a dozen facts about them. How peculiar!

Take my last post, for instance. That definition of literature, I am now sure, was not my own. It must have come from somewhere. But from where? My mind immediately drifts through my library. It drifted towards some of the pieces of literary criticism, especially the frothier specimens, I’ve consumed over the last few years. Was it in Gore Vidal? T. S. Eliot? Michael Dirda? I quietly and quickly scanned through a few books. I have a habit of underlining the best lines. I am a squirrel, always collecting, with little or no reason. It’s actually quite bizarre.

What is more bizarre is that as I flipped through the pages more and more came back to me. Here, underlined, is one of my favorite quotes from Jonathan Swift: “But not to digress farther in the midst of a digression, as I have known some authors to enclose digressions in one another, like a nest of boxes.” A digression digressing on the unpropitious use of digressions! Now located within a digression of my own making! I am sure I am not the first to think of this bemusing and amusing bit of smug diversion. But, please, bear with me dear reader.

I think my problem comes from a disease, one that is closely related to the one identified by Merton and labeled ‘insanabile scribendi cacoethes. In plain English, the itch to publish. My ailment, since I hardly publish and if then only on this blog, is the itch to read. I must read. It’s almost an obsession and must be, I believe, labeled appropriately. It is a disease. Suspend your disbelief! If only for a moment. Se non e vero, e molto ben trovato — if it is not true, it is very well invented. You must allow me that much.

My choice of reading material is not always defensible. I am sure there are people out there who find my bookshelves pretentious, a waste of time or an unpleasant mix of both. My comments follow a similar trajectory. Swift quipped that “Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book.” I feel something similar, but when I read these little nuts that I have burrowed away inside the pages of these books. Some of my notes are informative. They have grown into trees of knowledge–yes, I am straining this metaphor to the breaking point. Some are entertaining. Some are great. Quite a few are trivial, useless and ultimately dismissible. Yet if there were only gems how I would ever distinguish the good from the bad? Contrast is key.

To get back to my original point I have found where that little, nugget of inspiration was for my attempt to elicit a chuckle–or, at least, a grimace–from you, dear reader. It is found within, of all things, the (new) introduction by Mary Russell to A Canticle For Leibowitz (Eos Paperback Ed. 2006). The first page no less! What are the chances that of the books that I picked up, randomly, from my bookshelf the one that I turn to has it? If there is any need for proof of a disturbingly sentient subconscious, I think I have it. I can only wonder how many other, small tidbits and large ideas–or, at least, a few of the former–have I been accidentally borrowing from other authors? How many authors out there have committed preemptive plagiarism on me–to pull from Merton’s OTSOG?

I doubt I will ever know and for that I can only thank whatever higher power exists in the world. Ignorance, sometimes, is bliss. But, if nothing else, then at least trying and failing mightily in the world of reading is better than a life of bare economic necessity. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that since cows may be purely economic it is “why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.” If there is a ever going to be a book about myself, or at least about people like myself–precious, precocious and smugly self-satisfied residents of the United States–at least it will make for some lively reading.

44 thoughts on “Remembering Books

  1. It’s funny, I think of this inability to remember as a disease, a problem that has been born out of age and general reduction of faculties, while you look at it as simply “life”.

    Thank you. I will now reevaluate that perception, and hopefully come to better terms with it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Oh, and just so you know, I read the entire thing, that just happened to be what leaped out at me the most. Your use of the English language is astounding and humbling.

    • Don’t attribute more to age than it deserves! It gets altogether too much credit for too many things for my liking. I’m (relatively) new to this whole life thing but I feel confident that I (read: we) am not alone in forgetfulness.

      I just hope that you don’t throw too many ashes on yourself. The world does that enough to us all, eh?

      And don’t worry about it. Thank you! I appreciated the comment and its charisma has a quality all its own. I don’t expect essays.

  2. Interesting post, thanks. I have a related problem – I think I know something because I read it somewhere (don’t know where it just swims up from my subconscious) which seems okay, except I read fiction! So is this a real fact or a convincing bit of authoring? This is particularly bad in good historical fiction or science fiction. Wouldn’t it be great if authors underlined facts or something? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • I don’t want to make any universal statements about humanity, but me personally I am still working my way through higher education. I’ve been at it a few years, so maybe my focus is draining away but I cannot remember anytime when I was terribly proficient at recalling… Well, anything.

    • I had exactly the same problem!

      But I remember reading a study that found that people remember things more easily if they are in the form of songs or poems and the likes. Something to do with rhythm, rhymes, sound etc…

      Sadly, I don’t remember where I read this! Kind of proves the point, really…

  3. I’ve heard it said that the reason we cannot recall certain items we’ve watched on t.v. Is due to the manner in which our brains filter data. But, as I am apt to do, after reading a book, I find myself in the same quandary as yourself. There are but a few that I could explicitly recall, and why is that?
    I find it frustrating and maddening, too.
    Let’s just chalk it up to the day and age we live in, all of the demands of the day, the weather, the traffic, etc… Let’s name it, put a tag on it: Life.
    Thanks for reassuring me. I thought I was surfing the tide all by myself.

    • Maybe it’s even this darn WordPress forcing us into a type of thinking?

      I was reading the Dumbest Generation and, to set the mood, the Shallows. They were frothy books but ones that have gotten me to reconsider (if only for a brief moment!) my assumptions about being very optimistic when it comes to the way technology is shaping my life. I’d recommend them if you have a slow afternoon (or three!) where you can quietly but quickly digest some sombering (is that a word?) and (if need be) sobering material.

  4. Your style of writing is impressive and your thoughts even more. I often find me all mixed up about the things Ive read or watched or glanced or even imagined but none-the-less it makes me, somehow – but I don’t care (more out of inability to do so) that I cannot recollect where it comes from and just revel in it.

  5. I still remember the name and the title of the books I’ve read. I just cannot recite them chronologically, which books I have read first. Maybe it’s time to reread if the memory fails us to recall the author and the title. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I couldn’t say, but thank you! I’m glad you found it interesting. Perhaps, if I was forced to name some ‘influences’ (even though to name influences would be to insult their ability to produce viable literary offspring!), I’d go with Tony Judt’s Reflections with Timothy Snieder. I love all of Gore Vidal’s essays. Hannah Arendt, at times, can be irresistible. I love, love and love the work of Zygmunt Bauman. I suppose I should also mention Robert Merton… I guess a collection of authors who write a glittering patchwork of science, history and witticisms.

      • Thank you! I know what I’m going to be reading next. I find that how a person writes is largely influenced by what he/she reads, and I love the way you write. Maybe I can pick up some pointers.

      • Asking for concrete book recommendations is like throwing a red flag in front of this not-terribly-bull-like bull. For fiction I, Claudius by Robert Graves (who I forgot to mention!). For the company Vidal’s 2008 essay collection edited by Jay Parini (Palini? I’m on my phone) is excellent. For serious business… Bauman and Modernity and the Holocaust. Reading one section will change your life.

      • Well, you’re not! Unless you mean financially. I understand that. Either higher education or great books need to become cheaper, preferably both.

        But seriously, don’t worry about feelings that tear you down. I don’t want my enthusiasm to darken your own. That’s literally the exact opposite of what I want to do. I’m just glad you’re interested.

  6. Great post. I too have fond memories of picking up a book and immersing myself in it. I went through stages and my youth was peppered with the Hardy Boys, Doctor Doolittle, Sherlock Holmes and Poe. Now I find it difficult to get into a book for the urge to write has taken over. instead of absorbing other points of view and I am trying to express my own.

  7. I have a bad tendency to rush through a book. I flatter myself that I was hungry for information, but more realistically, it’s simply the wish to finish as many books as possible. As a result, I often can’t remember the details, especially for novels.

    By the way, I have written posts on similar topics. You may find them interesting!
    ‘A Thesis on Book’
    ‘What reading means to me’

  8. Read A Canticle For Leibowitz in 7th grade, maybe 6th. It was a big step at that time to read such a thing. It was 1974 or 75. I re-read it years later. As dystopian or suggestive of apocalypse books go, it left an impression. But, like you, I cannot quote or even make a meaningful point using what was there. I forgot.

  9. Yes! We spend so much time reading, invest so much in it, and yet so much of it fades. Or does it? I think you’d be amazed what comes back to you. If someone asked you which details you remember from a particular book, perhaps you’d be surprised how much you remembered–more than you’d think. Even more if you leafed through it. And even more if someone mentioned a great story from that book, and you said, “Oh yes! Didn’t that end with his suicide?” And that would prove that it’s still inside the melon, helping you drive this vehicle you call your life.

  10. I feel myself to be the same. Infact, I feel I don’t remember much of my earlier life that has passed, in addition to the media that I’ve consumed. I’ve kind of accepted this as a fact of my life. I do imagine what it would be like to have a photographic memory!

  11. Other then the method of creating loci links to help re-call information you might find my blog post useful which addresses this exact thing.

    “Have you ever plopped your head into a personal development book, gone several pages deep and realized not a single drops sunk into your consciousness? We all have. The good news here is that your procedural memory is in-check; the fact you can read this text automatically and effortlessly indicates youโ€™ve got one.

    The Bad News: Embodying and internalizing self-help material isnโ€™t about passive reading but rather; about establishing…”

  12. I don’t always remember what I’ve read, but I remember how everything I’ve ever read made me feel, so I know who I can recommend it to, based on how I relate to them.
    I’ve read a thousand books in my life time, and those that stand out in memory are those that made me feel… something. Even if it was anger at how something so ridiculous was published when all of my novels are still on my computer!

  13. I completely agree – sometimes it amazes me how little I remember after reading a book. I keep a “book log” and, I suppose, it’s a good indication of how important emotions are. I may not be able to remember specific plot details, phrases, or even characters’ names when I look back on the titles I’ve read, but I can almost always remember how the book made me FEEL.

    I hope, quite honestly, that my writing can do the same for others. Great post, and congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  14. This makes me think of Hellen Keller’s “The Frost King” which was apparently an accidental reproduction of Margaret Canby’s “Frost Faries.” What actually happened is fodder for debate, but it’s interesting to consider how much the mind can absorb and rebrand as its own.

  15. “I am surprised at how little I remember the books I read. There is only a few scraps of each that remains after Iโ€™ve devoured them, and sometimes I do not know what scrap goes with what book.”

    Yes, that is certainly me! In myself I’ve always attributed it to laziness, or maybe the fact that I was never a very diligent student. I imagine that when a student really applies himself to excel in his studies, he develops the habit of retaining information, maybe through the process of analyzing and summarizing what he reads. Whereas I usually breeze through a book at full speed just for the joy of it.

    Although of course there are some books I can’t breeze through even if I want to.

    • Laziness, perhaps, but the excitement (“for the joy of it”) rings much more clearly for me. I have no idea why the one bell tolls louder than the other. It could be that the age-old coincidence of pride and stubbornness allows me to avoid labeling myself as ‘lazy.’ But also there’s a little bit of optimism there too! I enjoy books too much to write down every savory bite… Is that such a bad thing? I think not. I hope not.

      Thank you for commentating.

      • No! I’m not saying it’s good or bad. Only for me, I do think it would be good, as well as handy and efficient, to be able to regurgitate more of the good things I read, as needed. But do I do anything about it? Well, let’s be realistic: I have a full-time job and a family. If scholarship was my living then my habits might be inexcusable, but as it is well, you just can’t have everything. And I certainly wouldn’t give up my family!

  16. Pingback: Remembering Books | endlesswanderer1

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