Everyone probably has a couple self-acknowledged oddities or failings we wonder if anyone else shares. It’s always a relief to find out that other people are in the same boat. So while plenty of people have been talking about Reading in a Digital Age by Sven Birkerts in the latest issue of The American Scholar, what struck me most may not have been as significant to many other people.
See, I’ve got this thing about memory. I’m always amazed at the stuff other people remember that may, at best, barely ring a bell in my mind. So the following paragraph of the essay really grabbed me:
Effects and impacts [of a novel] change constantly, and there’s no telling what, if anything, I will find myself preserving a year from now. But even now, with the scenes and characters still available to ready recall, I can see how certain things start to fade and others leave their mark. The process of this tells on me as a reader, no question. With [a recently finished] novel—and for me this is almost always true with fiction—the details of plot fall away first, and so rapidly that in a few months’ time I will only have the most general précis left. I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.
I couldn’t count the number of times a minor sense of panic has set in when someone asks me about a book I’ve read. Even if it hasn’t been years ago, I often have a hard time recalling plots, character names and, like Birkerts, sometimes even how a book ended. It just doesn’t take long at all for even significant details to evaporate from my brain cells. So when someone like Birkerts, who isn’t that much older than me, “confesses” to the same experience, I delightedly thought, “I’m not the only one!”
Yet even my parochial pleasure relates to one of the main themes in the essay. Birkerts is certain that “reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it” and that he knows “a great deal without knowing what I know.” I often feel the same. I may not be able to tap into a particular memory or a particular book for the source of something I know or believe, but that doesn’t mean the book left no trace of having been read. Perhaps this situation exists because of the number of books we read and the fact our brain has to shove other stuff aside as we assimilate the new. Regardless, it’s reassuring to see that even though a “lifetime of reading … maps closely to a lifetime of forgetting” I’m not alone in knowing the utter enjoyment and benefits of reading are more important than whether my memory cells are faulty.
Memory is slush, a muddy puddle in which the little ships of things now sink, now surface triumphantly.
Dorota Masloska, “Faraway, So Gross,” The Wall in My Head