Words and Actions

Over and over again, I find I cannot recall a passage that I added to my Commonplace Book a relatively short time ago or those, of course, that stretch back over the years. Clearly I need to review my collection more often, something I really only do at the end of the year or from time to time when I am searching for quotations from a particular book or article.

While I collect all these thoughts and words of wisdom, they rarely come to mind when they might be useful or influence my behavior when I wish them to. There is such a gap between words and actions, between thoughts and behavior. I put these words to paper in the hope that they will narrow this gap, that I will be able to make more intelligent decisions, and do so with ease. But that rarely, if ever, happens.

In a review of Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, Joyce Carol Oates writes:

“The predicament of Gessen's characters, as it is likely to be the preeminent predicament of Gessen's generation, is the disparity between what one has learned of history and the possibilities of making use of that knowledge in one's life…”

This is exactly what I am talking about. As the central character laments: "I have spent …most of my life in libraries." Here again, there is that gap between what you are learning in the library and what you are able to do when you are away from your books.

At a dinner party a few weeks ago, someone used in jest the phrase "the meaning of life." I instantly recalled reading that very morning a passage in Joseph's Epstein's essay “Talking to Oneself” that dealt with the meaning of life. For the life of me I could not recall the passage, although I thought it might add to the exchange.

Epstein quotes Edward Shils who, when the son of a friend of his committed suicide, leaving a note saying that he found life meaningless, responded: "of course it is meaningless, but most of us are fortunately too busy to dwell on its meaningless." But I couldn't recall it; yet it was only a few hours before that I had read it and had, in fact, copied it into my commonplace book.

This example is instructive: Reading is a relatively passive activity. Indeed, some read so quickly that it is hard to imagine they are catching much of anything. But for even the most focused readers it is fair to say that little is recalled or recorded in any permanent fashion. Other than those who have a photographic memory, unless the reader makes a deliberate effort to mark a given passage, then review it, perhaps copy it someplace or indeed memorize it, it should not be surprising that reading does not guarantee recall and even less surprising that the information is not automatically or otherwise translated into action.

What is necessary to achieve that?