Literary Memories

We forget so much. I forget so much of the books I read. I read every word, I think about the story and the ideas and then if I ask myself about a book I read five, eight or ten years, I can scarcely recall a thing. Where have my memories gone? I am continually intrigued by the question. Do I retain anything from my reading?

I asked myself that question again after reading Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love. I first read the novel in 2005 and again this year. I duly made notes and cited passages in my commonplace book after both readings. But in contrast to the first, I wrote something about the novel this year. Does that make a difference? I must remember to ask myself about Krauss’s novel five years from now.

I saved 21 passages the first time I read the book, compared to 30 when I read it this year. What does that mean? Am I reading more carefully? Has this business of collecting passages gotten the better of me? Or am I becoming more and more like Leo Gursky? Probably all three.

Eight of the passages I saved this year were also saved when I read the book initially. They were:

Put a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza

…to live in an undescribed world was too lonely

…the insoluble contradiction of being animals cursed with self-reflection, and moral beings cursed with animal instincts.

We met each other when we were young, before we knew enough about disappointment, and once we did we found we reminded each other of it.

I live alone now, which doesn’t bother me. Or maybe just a little.

You also asked what I do…Watch movies and read. Sometimes I even pretend to write, but I’m not fooling anyone. Oh, and I go to the mailbox.

He was no longer in the business of making friendships.

…the whose sense of time and history in the book is very loose.

These overlapping selections please me a bit. They reflect a certain consistency in my behavior, my identity, if you will, something I am never sure is the same from one day to the next. It may also reflect the difficulty, indeed the near impossibility of changing behavior. William Salter expressed this well:

People were always saying something had completely changed them, some experience or book or man, but if you knew how they had been before, nothing much really had changed.

I read a lot, probably too much. Book after book each year, articles and essays, the newspaper, literary journals, and more. How can one remember all of that? Surely long term memory has its limits. Thinks get jumbled up, sent to ever more remote synapses.

When I come across a passage I copied the first time around, I might be able to recognize it as something familiar. But recognition is not recall or retrieval. Still something must be left from the books we read—somewhere—a certain residue, perhaps organized in some fashion unique to each reader or just as likely randomly scattered about the great storehouse. No doubt they are also mixed up and combined in ways completely unknown to each of us--inaccessible, unavailable, irretrievable memories.

In his American Scholar essay, Reading in the Digital Age, Sven Birkerts has also grappled with this question. He puts it this way, “You can shine the interrogation lamp in my face and ask me to describe Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and I will fail miserably, even though I have listed it as one of the novels I most admire. But I know that traces of its intelligence are in me, that I can, depending on the prompt, call up scenes from that novel in bright, unexpected flashes: it has not vanished completely."