Essays

Good Luck, Memory

By posted at 6:01 am on July 19, 2011 13

coverLate last summer, I read Nicholson Baker’s U & I, which, though I can’t recall the reasons, I can’t recommend enough. Published in 1991, U & I chronicles Baker’s obsessive fascination with that most pale of prose geniuses, John Updike, even while admitting he is by no means a completist and hasn’t read all of Updike’s books. I was visiting my then-girlfriend in New York while reading U & I, and from the first sentence I was so devoted that one day I carried it onto the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I was meeting an old friend to watch football and drink beer. I could barely endure the torturously hot subway station, though, and as I waited for my train in the heat I felt like I had hot coals tucked into my armpits. The subway car, by contrast, was so cool and Baker’s self-deprecations so engrossing that I remember this brief period (probably something like a half hour) as one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my entire life.

covercovercoverThe problem now is my absent memory of Baker’s book. I can conjure up an image of its cover, which isn’t, frankly, all that memorable, but my mental storage unit is empty when I go looking for eloquent Bakerisms. Second, even the “plot,” such as it is with Nicholson Baker, escapes me. I vaguely remember Baker explaining how his mother had a conniption fit laughing at some humorous essay of Updike’s, a piece where he described a divot in a golf course being “big as a t-shirt.” I also have a foggy memory of Baker meeting Updike at some Harvard gathering, where he allows Updike to believe that he—Baker—also attended that august institution. It goes further. I can’t remember Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, either, although I read it last summer, too. His most recent novel, The Anthologist, which I devoured after A Box of Matches, another Baker book, also remains mostly sunk, like an iceberg, in the warming waters of my brain. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx (or whoever) said. I supposedly read these four Nicholson Baker books less than twelve months ago, and now my dominant memory is a section in The Mezzanine that describes the various sounds adult men make while defecating in corporate bathrooms. I recall that the word “spatterings” appears in all its horrifying, onomatopoeic glory, but remember the poop joke is not my most cherished literary principle.

coverThere isn’t any inherent reason to worry about forgetfulness, of course. Reading is reading; what you remember can seem a gift and what you forget just one of many things that, slipping away, never did you any harm. But—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a PhD student in the thick of preparations for my comprehensive exams—a large part of the pleasure (and struggle) I experience with books relates directly to my capacity to remember the words that appear in them. And despite the fine arguments of writers like Joshua Foer in his recent Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, I’m not looking for brute memorization, i.e. Xeroxing Shakespeare’s complete works with my brain. I keep notes when it counts, after all.

coverPerhaps it’s from reading too much (lately, it’s felt like too much, as I burn through a booklist that is supposed to represent the foundation for my future academic career), but the best tactic is to rely on the accidental art of memory, which patterns information organically, without much pre-set strategy. When I recently read an essay on ruins by Geoff Dyer, for example, his comment that the remains of ancient buildings suggest the triumph of space over time reminded me immediately of a passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz that I thought I had forgotten: “We know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” Now, I hope, I’ll remember both these poetic conclusions. This kind of recall depends, actually, on the same digressive energy that both Dyer and Sebald lean on in their writing. And anyway, the great virtue of underlining sentences in the books you read is the opposite of what it seems to be: you’re giving yourself permission to forget all the non-underlined bits. As I become more comfortable with the forgetting, I realize the shape of the remembering.

The situation actually seems both grimmer and more hopeful when I glance at the list of books I’ve already read thus far in 2011. There are 31 books there, and I can remember, on average, a single line or phrase from probably 11 of them. For others—particularly for books which make a sustained argument—I can remember the logic of the thinking, but would have to go back to my notes to recall the specific turns of vocabulary that make the arguments stick. On the one hand, it seems like terrific luck to have retained particular lines at all. On the other, I can’t help but feel sad in the face Harold Bloom’s prodigious memory. In a recent video interview with The New York Times, Bloom reeled off some lines of Hart Crane’s poetry with such perfect rhythm and confidence I felt equal parts charmed and inspired to jealous rage, which is not the point of (most) Modernist poetry.

covercoverBut if the issue is my happiness as a reader, I take comfort in a quotation provided by critic Eric Santner in his 2006 book, On Creaturely Life, a study of, among other writers, W.G. Sebald. Santner mentions, as an aside, a comment from philosopher Jonathan Lear, who writes that “…we need to go back to an older English usage of happiness in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things working out well rather than badly.” Happiness as good luck makes perfect sense, particularly if you think of the word hapless, which roughly means luckless, without hap. So, by contrast, to be lucky, is—by substitution—to be happy. In other languages, like German and Dutch, lucky and happy already go by the same word. That I or anyone else is fortunate enough to remember whatever books we’ve read therefore appears to be a textbook case of happiness. Even so glorious a wet blanket as Friedrich Nietzsche already had some sense of happiness as this game of chance. In Beyond Good and Evil, he comments, “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want.” Thought, like memory, has its own life; we are just its devotees. If a German philosopher who proclaimed the death of God can find the exit door here, then I’ll take the accidental hap of memory, if nothing else.

coverThis is all such a stupid luxury, of course, hand-wringing over the proper way to read and remember. And the picture of the reading life and its haunted memory that I prefer now is from the book I have just finished: Geoff Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the second half of the novel, the unnamed narrator observes two fellow travelers and friends and comments, “Earlier that day, as I was coming back from Manikarnika in a boat, I’d glanced up at the terrace of the Lotus Lounge and seen them there, arms round each other. As the boat skulked upstream, I looked up from time to time like some sad fuck in a Henry James novel, relieved that they’d not seen me seeing them.” Even if he can’t remember which sad fuck, the narrator’s memory tells him that he’s part of a grand tradition. How lucky.

(Image by C. Max Magee)





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13 Responses to “Good Luck, Memory”

  1. Kirk
    at 6:20 am on July 19, 2011

    I don’t know how old you are, but when you get on the other side of 40, you start forgetting a lot of books. I’m a decade past that, and many of the books I really liked in the past – I think of Robertson Davies great novels, all of which I read one summer 15 years ago – become just part of a large literary fog.

    This said, forgetting can be a good thing, because when you re-read a book, it will be almost as if you’re discovering it again. You’ll recognize certain plot points and characters, but you may forget some of the pivotal moments, or you may simple discover things you didn’t notice the first time around.

  2. Mark O'Connell
    at 7:01 am on July 19, 2011

    I really enjoyed this. I read U and I maybe two or three years ago and, for some reason, the part where Baker talks about his mother losing it over Updike’s line about the divot is one of the few things that stuck with me too. I remembered it, though, as being “as big as a pair of underpants.” I looked it up, just to double check, and it’s actually “a divot the size of an undershirt” (at least in Baker’s version). Which is sort of appropriate, given that so much of Baker’s book is about misremembering parts of other writers’ work. Anyway, really interesting piece.

  3. Ian Bruce
    at 8:15 am on July 19, 2011

    A few years ago I re-read The Razor’s Edge, some 15 years after my first reading, and a part of the pleasure was in finding half remembered passages again, like old friends. My 12 year old daughter has a photographic memory of the Harry Potter books, and seems to get great pleasure from recalling the intricacies of plot and character. Memory and the lack of it brings different pleasures. Great article.

  4. Jim
    at 10:16 am on July 19, 2011

    I remember reading somewhere a line something like “The residue from a life of active reading is a well-formed moral sense”–meaning, I suppose, that it isn’t what is remembered versus what is forgotten from what we read that is important, but rather the sensibility thereby created.

    Perhaps this is just a way to make myself feel better living with an ever poorer memory, but this line resonated with me.

  5. Julius Lester
    at 12:10 pm on July 19, 2011

    Perhaps the object of reading is the experience itself, and what we remember afterward are not specific lines or plot lines but the experience itself and the joy that particular book gave us. I am 72, and a special gift is to recall a book I
    read 50 years ago, and while I’ve forgotten the specifics of the book, what is still vibrant is where I was when I read the book and how it made me feel. The books
    that linger in the heart are far more important than what I have forgotten of
    their specifics.

  6. Fred Gullette
    at 1:13 pm on July 19, 2011

    Give memory a chance–read a *book*: e’text has been reported to reach only 75% of best [literal book] retention.

  7. Melody Wilson
    at 2:19 pm on July 19, 2011

    Fred, where are you getting that figure? I’ve participated in a study that found equal retention, device-agnostic.

    I read a lot, and forget nearly as much. That’s why I started reviewing books, so that I could keep track of what I did or didn’t like in a text.

  8. Peter Krass
    at 5:06 pm on July 19, 2011

    Check out “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” by Pierre Bayard. He has something in there about books one has read but then forgotten — I’d say more, but don’t remember….

  9. R
    at 7:27 pm on July 19, 2011

    As a reader who forgets almost everything she reads, I very much enjoyed this article. If I don’t write anything down about it, I don’t remember it, plain and simple. Makes grad school difficult.

  10. nate knapp
    at 12:46 pm on July 20, 2011

    Really hate those people who can memorize particular lines and phrases. I can’t even remember the ones with which I take specific pains to do so.
    Great article, Michael.

  11. Bob
    at 1:10 pm on July 20, 2011

    Great essay – I felt “lucky” to read it

  12. This Week in Books: July 22, 2011 | Bookmark Bookstore
    at 1:45 pm on July 22, 2011

    […] Quill & Quire British Library aims to buy 7th century St. Cuthbert Gospel – CBC.com Good Luck, Memory – The Millions Book rescue attracts film-maker’s interest – CBC.com Could you […]

  13. eirenicon
    at 3:50 pm on July 28, 2011

    If you want to feel the pangs of memory lost, read Swann’s Way. The detail Proust is capable of summoning from his childhood is both inspiring and envious. Of course, remembrance of things past gets easier the longer you dwell and the deeper you go, but he devoted much of his adult life to the curation of his own history, and suffered for it.

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