Books, Forgetting and the Pure Joy of Reading

My favorite library belongs to my friends Andrew and Kathryn: Color coded throughout the house.

This week I have been inundated with references to a piece by Ian Crouch, The Curse of Reading and Forgetting, on Facebook, Twitter and in my email. Bullseye. This is what perfect targeting looks like, exactly the kind of tailored fit hoped for by marketers who mistakenly fill the margins of my online life with ads for things I will never want, like ecards and glitzy handbags.

Crouch exposes the brutal truth about how much of what we read we forget. Erudite and articulate, he admits to the same deep forgetfulness about books that I have thought best to keep hidden, like a tragic family secret.

This is such a painful state of affairs, and my awareness of this sorry reality has been even more intense of late as I have been reading through the nearly 1300 posts that have appeared here on Slow Muse since it began in 2006. My claim of being a Nowist (a term I borrowed from the MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito and written about here) may just be a default position rather than a choice.

From Crouch’s piece:

Looking at my bookshelves…the spines look familiar; the names and titles bring to mind perhaps a character name, a turn of plot, often just a mood or feeling—but for the most part, the assembled books, and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting…

Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.

Crouch asks himself if perhaps he doesn’t really like reading after all. Or even more frightening, he wonders whether he is actually quite bad at reading altogether.

But he ends his article with a proposed program of self improvement:

A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once…Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.

While rereading is a good thing, like a high fiber diet, I had a slightly different take on the same data. Given how little I remember, I have to ask just why it is I love reading so completely. What is it that happens in that moment that feels like a opiate surge, the sure hit at the pleasure centers somewhere in my consciousness that produces a titillation, an enthrallment, a state of rapture unlike any other?

It just may be that reading is my drug of choice, and not remembering each adventure is less important than the rhapsody that happens in the moment. I am still pondering if that is true, and if it is, what that might mean.

7 Comment

  1. There must be some silver lining to the mind letting go of the vast particulars that flow into and through it day after day. Not sure what that would be. Maybe a speedier response to the newest stimulus? Anyway, like you, but even more so, what I read is mostly non-retrievable; parts of it may persist in neural nets and impact consciousness in unknown ways. Maybe the best part of my past reading is simply the color-coded library.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Of course I loved reading your modest guess at what this is all about. While your color-coded library delights me every time I sit with it, it is your mind that delights me most of all. Something exquisite has been etched with all that book learning you have had, and we are the beneficiaries of that mysterious and slightly clandestine process. xoxo

  2. Alberto martin says:

    I see no thick tomes in those shelves. Most of the books are quite thin – are the majority only about art? Some literature also?

  3. Cindy says:

    I know what you mean about the endorphin high. When a book arrives from Amazon, opening up the package and just holding the item can be a high…even without cracking the book. Reading is the experience of going into all the the deepest inner places of the mind, putting two and two together, finding the questions sometimes as delicious as the answers. While reading, the mind could be in an alpha or beta state. That might be a reason we don’t remember as much. Like remembering a dream, it starts to slowly fade away upon awakening. Since I have never seen myself as a great remember-er, I don’t feel badly that I lose touch with what I have read. It was always that way at school, you cram for a test, then forget everything afterwards, unless you keep using it. Your post and the article by Crouch comforts me and makes me feel a little better about myself. It’s nice to know very smart people forget too. Love the Kimball color-coded library. Andrew has found the perfect visual of the way the mind remembers and forgets. What a great addition to your post!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Cindy, I hadn’t thought of that “altered state” that reading can be as analogous to dreaming. Thank you for opening that up, it has all sorts of possibilities. And yes, Andrew’s bookshelves continue to intrigue and delight me. It’s the why not? approach to a library’s organization which is an ongoing issue for all book lovers. Thanks for your comment.

  4. this was odd to read…i have suffered from hyper vigilance for so long i don’t know when it started, it’s only since i got fibromyalgia that i can be 20 or even 40 pages into a book before i dimly start to remember/realise: oh, i’ve read this before! Previously, a rejacketed book or american/other title would announce itself by line 3… and i immersed into books for a safe haven, with a renewed ‘hit’ on re-reading, i much preferred the re-read actually, with fiction books where random triggers might surface. it helped a lot with essay writing at school, i could mostly remember the position on the page where the right quotation was 😉
    the mind is a funny fish 😉

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      The mind IS a funny fish…Thanks for sharing your sense of this issue.

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