Remembering what you read…

Reading is almost my favourite thing to do with my spare time. It competes with a few other things pleasurable things, but for the most part it is what I’d rather do than anything else. I mean, great literature is all well and good, but who among us wouldn’t drop their latest book like a hot potato at the suggestion of an ‘early night’ from their significant other?

The act of reading also comes with two of the things I hate most in my life: the shame at my inability to finish certain books (either because they are ‘difficult’ or just plain dull); and the difficulty in remembering exactly what it is that I have read. I can reel off a list of titles in conversation, but when pressed it’s often hard to remember details. A piece on this latter bugbear appeared recently in The New Yorker entitled, The Curse of Reading and Forgetting. This both reminded me of my own perceived shortcomings and served in some measure of reassurance that I’m not in fact alone in this malaise and failure of memory. 

I’ve even read books that I have felt in some ways have profoundly affected – if not my life – then definitely my thinking and my world view. But it is only certain passages that have stuck with me when the narrative has disappeared into the mist. Albert Camus’ The Stranger is a great example of this. Reading it at a time when I was quite depressed, I remember being inspired by his declaration that: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

How could fail to be moved by such a life-affirming statement?

The truth is though, that I’ve forgotten most of what the novel was all about. In my ignorance, I even ended up with two copies of the book after failing to realise that L’Etranger was the original French title for the same book. I picked up a copy after reading the blurb on the back and thinking it sounded interesting. It was only once I got home and started to read that I realised that I had in fact read it before.

As another example, I’ve also evangelised on the fantasy books of Robin Hobb to many people. I spent a summer in thrall to her Farseer and Liveship Traders trilogies. I remember being almost distraught at coming to the end of them, but now can only remember vague, fleeting flashes of scenes and characters. 

Of course there are dozens of other examples.

I reckon that I could hold my own in a discussion on literature with most people, particularly when it comes to themes and tropes, but at plot points or just even plain old-fashioned retelling a story, I’d be hopeless. Is this down to the sheer volume of data going into my head – should I read fewer books in the hope that these will have more of a chance of settling in for the duration – or is this a problem for all readers?

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