Are you like me and find yourself leaving comments on blogs to the effect of “I read this X years ago and don’t remember much about it other than I liked it.” Or, have you ever settled down to read a book for the first time and fifty pages in realize you have actually read the book before? I suppose it was only natural then that I really enjoyed Ian Crouch’s New Yorker article The Curse of Reading and Forgetting.
The article was inspired by his eagerly sitting down to read A High Wind in Jamaica and realizing after a few pages that he had read the book only three years ago. After rereading it then, he wonders, given how memorable some key scenes are, how could he possibly have completely forgotten that he had read it before? Looking over his bookshelves he realizes that, while he could point out which books he has read, he didn’t remember much about what was in the books. In fact, what he remembered was a mood or a feeling, maybe the name of a character or a plot point. Sometimes all he could remember was where he read the book.
I felt so much better about my own book forgetting after reading this. It reminded me that the only thing I remember about Jean Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters was finishing it late one summer afternoon while sitting in a beach chair in my parents’ backyard. I closed the book and looked up and the sky was pink and orange sunset. But the book? Nope.
Forgetting books has never led me to wonder what it meant or question the act of reading at all. Crouch, however, found himself wondering whether he really like reading? Or maybe forgetfulness betrays a certain failure of attention? But then he realizes that human memory is a fickle thing and forgetting what we read is only natural.
Oh course, there is a remedy, he suggests: rereading. But then we are presented with the readerly dilemma of whether to reread or cut our losses and read something completely new. Most of the time we would rather read the new and we feel glad we can tick the book off our TBR list or no longer be embarrassed that we have never read a particular author or book. But what, Crouch wonders, would it mean to read a single novel over and over until you could honestly say you know the book? Did your heart just skip a beat at the thought? Did you just feel a moment of panic, “what book would I choose?”
I think it comes down to the reasons we choose to read in the first place. They are many, but the driving force is pleasure and entertainment for most of us. While there are a handful of books I have read and reread and reread again, even those I reread because I love them so much, not because I want to get to know them intimately. The intimacy comes in bits and pieces, slowly over time; like getting to know a person it just happens in the natural course of things.
It does bother me sometimes that I forget so much of what I read, but that too I forget as I move on to the new book I have just pulled off my shelf.