The other day I chanced upon a volume on my bookshelf that I recall reading a few years ago. It was at the end of the row and so it was more noticeable than the other books on the shelf. It was The Green Hour by Frederic Tuten.
I took it from the shelf, looked at the inside back page, and saw that I had listed several page numbers where the passages I had marked were located. I checked my Commonplace Book to see if I had copied them and yes, they were there and that I had read the book in 2002--a mere eight years ago.
If you had asked me what was the book about, I could not have told you. I would not have been able to tell you the story, the names of the characters, what happened to them or really much of anything about the book. All I remember was that I had liked it and that I thought it was a quite special love story. So I took the book from the shelf and began reading it a few days later.
Nothing about it seemed familiar. Not Paris, Dominique, Rex, Professor Morin, Kenji—nothing. It was if I had just picked it up and started to read de novo. I am still reading it and once again enjoying it immensely. How could I have forgotten it, forgotten virtually all of it except that I liked it enough not to discard it along with so many others in deciding what books to save each time we packed up to move yet again.
A friend writes: Don't you love it when a book you have previous read and enjoyed seems totally new when you read it again? The book is the same but we are different which makes for a delightful and sometimes unsettling reading experience.
What is it that we remember in the books we have read? And if, in fact, we remember very little, how then do the books we’ve read influence us? Could it be that they scarcely affect us at all?
In his recent essay (Reading in a Digital Age) in the American Scholar, Sven Birkerts poses the same questions:
What—I ask again—what has been the point of my reading? One way for me to try to answer is to ask what I do retain. Honest answer? A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche. Certainly I believe I have gained something important, though to hold that conviction I have to argue that memory access cannot be the sole criterion of impact: that there are other ways that we might possess information, impressions, and even understanding. For I will insist that my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it.
Here Birkerts argues that what we usually don’t recall anything specific in the books we’ve read. Rather we remember an impression, a “feeling” or a “sensation” and occasionally an idea or a character.
And so whatever influence books have upon us has to be very general, a non-specific effect that we sense but cannot identify with any precision. Learning without awareness. We no doubt learn a great deal but that derives from the cumulative impact of years of reading, book after book, one year after another.
Make a list of the books you’ve read. You might be startled. Now tell me what you recall from each one.
We learn styles, values, points of view, a certain sensitivity about matters of the heart and mind. We hear people voice views that are similar to our own and since we admire or respect them, our views are strengthened. We develop tastes and a way of being, and while we clearly don’t imitate the characters on the page or espouse the same ideas, we do learn to discriminate between ideas we do and don’t believe, between what is true and what isn’t. And what we learn continues to evolve over the course of our reading days so that what was true 40 years ago may very well not be today.