Looking over some of his old essays, a friend suggested to me that he didn't recognize very much of what he had once written. More than that, he often didn't even remember writing them. Rereading old essays of my own, I wonder who I was when I wrote them, I wonder where that 'I' -- once so utterly focused on the subject under discussion, once seemingly so self-aware -- has now gone. Actually, I'm sure that that is part of why we write: as much to forget, to purge, as to remember. Proust's huge meditation on memory is so profoundly moving because it fully fleshes out the commonplace that life is forgetting, yet memories are, quite literally, also who we are: our self is what we remember of our self and of others. Life is the accommodation we make, or is made for us, between holding on and letting go. But who makes the accommodation? Ourselves? But who is that self, and why should we trust it when it proves itself, in the very process of remembering, to be based on such vistas of absence, to be so insubstantial, so untrustworthy?

Via Borges (Funes the Memorious), we know that to over-remember is to fail to live fully, but to forget is to inhabit a void. Too much information and we can't move, can't breathe; too little and we're equally stifled, but this time via a conspiracy of contextlessness. The Novel itself replicates this, in a sense. Pierre Bayard's surprisingly stimulating How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is, as much as anything, an investigation into memory: what does it mean to say that one has read a book if days, weeks or months later one can remember nothing about it? Does some homeopathic traceless residue somehow remain? Has an altering occurred with the reading? A substantive shift that once achieved doesn't need the memory of content to pertain? Or has the event, even though we live in its aftermath, now failed to have occurred?

Even as we move through the pages of a book -- especially a large book; I've just read Jonathan Littell's 1,000 page The Kindly Ones, so I'm particularly aware of this -- we are constantly forgetting the detail which defines it. A novel is everything that the writer does to flesh out the basic story. Some claim there are only seven basic plots; a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare will confirm that Will got most all of them boxed-off, and repeated a fair few, in his 30-odd plays. But particularities are the very things that we forget as we move through and are moved by any story. The novel is everything that the writer does to flesh out the basic story, and reading is the process of forgetting those details. A novel is defined by being too much to hold in our mind all at once: in a sense, it is unreadable, and always remains unread.

Readers Comments

  1. Our memories are a cognizant experience of our senses which are not real due at least to conditionings ...writing and memories are alterered momentarily.....what is real? Can I even trust my present experience?

  2. Interesting post...I find that lately it's harder to remember plots and characters, especially since I am reading more. Yet, I'm taking more notes than before, so what gives?
    My guess is that in reading, it's only a mental experience...all our sense aren't engaged. Whereas a physical memory, with all those senses firing, we pick up more than we need for a memory. The excess can actually be what we keep when the rest gets filtered out. Which is why, despite many visits to Dodger Stadium, I can't remember a game or anything except a new superbounce ball I played with once in the parking lot. I've been to Belize for a month but all I really have remembered of the entire experience was a crappy burger in a cheesy hotel. There has to be some strange synaptic click that makes some images more indelible.

  3. lovely post, Mark. It seems like it more of the details, or geography that I remember in books I've loved, which is part of the self, perhaps of the character who has stayed in my imagination.

  4. Conscious memory is not the only residence of past reading. Or for that matter current reading.

    Lately, a childish pun on "facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque" ("I make free men out of children with books and a balance" was echoed via LRB's Mark Ford on Randall Jarrell, with reference to "Children Selecting Books In A Library", which concludes:

    What some escape to, some escape: if we find Swann's
    Way better than our own, and trudge on at the back
    Of the north wind to — to — somewhere east
    Of the sun, west of the moon, it is because we live
    By trading another's sorrow for our own; another's
    Impossibilities, still unbelieved in, for our own ...
    "I am myself still?" For a little while, forget:
    The world's selves cure that short disease, myself,
    And we see bending to us, dewy-eyed, the great
    CHANGE, dear to all things not to themselves endeared.

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