Written by Diane Mehta
The novelist James Collins recently wrote in the Times that he couldn’t remember much about the books he read. Collins lists a few books he loved and which he read eagerly at the time but points out that he really just has some vague sense of what they were about:
“…all I associate with them is an atmosphere and a stray image or two, like memories of trips I took as a child”
Thank goodness it’s not just me. Years ago I spent weeks reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch and discovered to my chagrin that shortly after I remembered largely nothing about the book. I avoided conversations about it and, horrified, I promised myself I’d keep tabs on character names and plot summaries. Today I continue to remember rhythms, phrasings, moments, and the gist of things without retaining much in the way of hard facts (names, plot, location).
Why bother reading?
Novels and nonfiction can be engrossing and stimulation, opines Collins, but what’s the point if the feeling and effects are transient? For answers he calls Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, who says that recall is different from a “gestalt of knowledge” and mollifies Collins by pointing out that he’s the sum of what he read. We read because books influence us. And the more they influence who we are the more we influence what we get from them. So if you ask someone why they liked a particular book in most cases they’re hard-pressed to say why. They may say they liked it because it was a coming of age story they related to or a business book that spelled things out in a way they didn’t anticipate.
Dig deeper and you see what people respond to: Some look for facts they can use to influence others and chart their own course of thinking, others look for a mood, and still others look for a character with whom they can identify. Through the lens of what people read you can understand what they’re concerned about, what kind of atmosphere makes them feel safe or uncertain, and what kinds of questions they struggle with.
I like ugliness and redemption but I don’t remember it
I tilt to Philip Roth, for example, because he writes syntactically taut and exacting sentences but also because he lets his characters say and do ugly things and way expose themselves as deeply vulnerable and flawed. And I became enmeshed in the way Roberto Bolaño, in 2666, feeds you a surprising procession of intimacy, dread, and relief: First he creates a compelling story and then he drags you through brutal killings after which he feeds you momentary salvation with a vision of a young boy so amphibious that he takes on the qualities of water and seaweed. Do I remember any character names from 2666 or plot details beyond the basics in any of Roth’s books? Not really (um, no).