The Weight of Memory

Is not remembering a book after having read it, even years later, the same as not having read it at all?

It’s not unusual for me to read four or five books in any given week. Sometimes I read a few more, sometimes a few less. Still, the amount of books I read at any given time takes up a considerable amount of my mental space. I’ve recently discovered that an alarming number of books I’ve read have become lost somewhere within the space of my memory. I do remember bits and pieces, a scene here or something a character said or did there, but more and more of the intricacies of the plot are lost to me. It’s a disturbing phenomenon to say the least. Moreover, as I get older I find myself remember less and less of what I’ve read. To complicate matters further, it’s not unusual for me to mix details of a plot among the books that I happened to be reading. I may be teaching one text and confuse a detail from that text with one I am reading outside of class. When this happens my students begin to frantically thumb through the pages of their book in search of my reference. Only I know that they will never find it.

Some psychologists argue that we never forget anything, that everything we experience is still “there” somewhere, waiting to be recalled at any time. There are times, especially during the summer, when bits of Faulkner will come back to me from the mists. I’m thankful for these moments for they function like a gift. However, since our capacity to remember is dictated by the brain, and the brain is one smart organ, it recognizes that we would collapse, just like Borges’ Funes, under the awesome weight of memory and experiences. This is perhaps what Funes was trying to say as he lie there in the darkness without so much as a candle to see by. His memories were slowly crushing him.

Sometimes, especially late at night, I’ll sit at my desk and stare at the books that surround me in my library at home. A random title will come into focus and with increasing frequency I will struggle to recall what the book is about. The proximity that ties me to the books in my library becomes increasingly remote, and as a result of this remoteness, I begin to experience a feeling of profound anxiety. The mood washes over me, leading me away from the depths of memory to something akin to paranoia as I struggle to recall something tangible, some detail, and all I feel is a barely perceptible murmur beneath the surface of consciousness. I wonder if this is what it’s like to experience the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. But perhaps not remembering can be just as powerful an experience as remembering. The great books of our lives demand re-reading, re-engaging over and over again. Maybe those book titles that catch my eye are calling out to me asking us to get reacquainted. I would like to think so.

If Sartre is right, and we are the sum total of our experiences, then it’s a sure bet that we have forgotten more than we could ever know. Judeo/Christian mythology tells us that God knows all, the beginning and the end, simultaneously. That type of knowledge would be like looking at the frames of a filmstrip where the first shot and the last and everything in between are seen at once. In the end, and if we live long enough, we may all die from pulmonary congestion, just like Funes. A life is a collection of experiences and thoughts made flesh, but the flesh is a weak vessel in which to carry such experiences and thoughts, such a mass of memories. It’s not hard to see that the ancients were correct in their assumption that the soul is weightless, for once the mortal shell is left behind the soul ascends to new heights, to roam where it will. There is a freedom in such a thought.

But I return to my original question: can we say that we have read a book if we fail to recall any of its contents? I say that we can precisely because our former selves, the ones who read the book, did experience the magic transformation of words into story. If we read the book, then its story, its DNA, if you like, resides somewhere deep inside our consciousness, waiting only for the right conditions to re-emerge from the darkness to which we have left it behind. And like layers of transparencies we become over time more complex, more thoughtful beings.

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One thought on “The Weight of Memory

  1. You answer, indirectly, another key question Andrew: do I still get “credit” for books I actually read but no longer recall a single word of?
    All that remains is the pain of slugging through some of those books. I may recall the titles, but that is about it. Yet you leave me feeling absolved. David Hume says that I am the “same person” today as the person who read those books decades ago, not on the basis of specific shared memories, but rather because I can identify a chain of individual versions of “me” over time who very clearly did shared the same memories. Wonder which one of those guys erased all of “Tess” .

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