I’ll never forget how they made me feel.
A confession; I feel like I have a pathetic memory for the things I read. The names wash over me, sometimes I’ll be half way through a novel with little idea of who people are. Russian novels are a particular joy in this regard. Throw me a fantasy novel with fictional cities, names, creatures, and magic; I am struggling like an amnesia patient. Or I used to anyway.
This book induced dementia always meant that one thing of particular interest was reading the memories people have of books. Articles like the ‘20 most important first lines of great American novels’ or similarly, ‘The 14 most soul-crushing final lines in the history of literature’ being particular sources of wonderment. Before me I have a list of important literary moments and I'm completely bereft of the ability to contribute. The comment sections of these articles are an even greater source of jealousy. People are listing line upon line of authors that didn't make the list.
The thing that irked me; People can seemingly regurgitate these profound moments in literature, no matter how obscure, like trained parrots.
So I thought hard. And some I have managed to remember. However, they generally don’t extend beyond the popular. “Call me Ishmael.” The last line of Nineteen Eighty-Four. To Kill A Mockingbird. Or the regurgitated to the point where they have lost all meaning and nearly all their beauty.
Looking at you first paragraph of Lolita.
This presented me with an interesting question of what reading means to me, and what reading means to others. The ability to recall quotes, names, moments, places; It gives a book the feeling of a piece of work to be studied and exhumed only for examination purposes. Perhaps this is a habit formed out of just that. The way people have studied books in classes for years, forming a particular cognitive response to reading.
I wondered about people that have this incredible recall for quotes. Do people keep lists? A journal? When a particular passage strikes them, does it go in a notepad? It seemed like the only viable option. And the simplest answer is normally the correct one, right?
My initial (deluded and exaggerated) image of this, conjured up a picture of the slightly deranged. Notebooks strewn across the house, the pages filled with the frantic scribbling of various meaningful literary moments. (Think Ignatius J. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces. Ramblings all over his bedroom. Or the Spirograph factory man in the Radioactive Man Film episode of ‘The Simpsons’, I’m getting it.)
Books, for me, have always existed in my mind in a similar way to dreams . A visceral, often times vivid experience, occupying a deep space in my subconscious. Soon after waking though, they’re a blurry mystery, an elusive whisper. Books live a similar life, quickly forgotten. For “Poems are like rainbows, they escape you quickly.” Well not if I write them down, I thought.
So now I have a notebook, various meaningful passages, titles, page numbers, written throughout. My phone is filled with similarly seemingly inane notes. “The Things they Carried — Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, How to Tell a True War Story”. “Italo Calvino — On Books — If on a Winters Night A Traveller”, “A Confederacy of Dunces — Ignatius, at the party”, “Nabokov — ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss’ — Page 1 — Speak, Memory”, “Things Fall Apart — The tale of the Turtle”, “The Secret History — page 251 — ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’. Love conquers all.
Personally I like the reverse “Omnia vincit amor”. It rolls off the tongue better… Take that Pulitzer Prize winning author Donna Tartt. She features quite a few times in my notes. “Page 113 — That laughter haunts me still.” Oh Bunny. “Page 433 — The Illiad, Eleventh Book. Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier; I have seen worse sights than this.” My bookshelf also has her to thank for a copy of The Illiad. Unopened. And a copy of The Odyssey. Unopened.
My progress? Generally speaking it has worked. On the one hand, I think my memory has improved. As is evident here. I’m also just more alert to passages that I like and want to write down. On the other, an interesting product of this exercise came not in a way I expected. I look through these notes occasionally, like right now, and It’s not the words that stick out, or the names, or the places. They serve as a conduit to me; to my feelings at the time. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” has a resting place of particular loneliness and melancholy in my life. The picture from “The Narrow Road to The Deep North” of a POW drowning in mud and excrement is juxtaposed against my happiness and comfort of the time.
Was this a good thing? Was I somehow divining more truth and meaning from books and myself because of this? I doubt it. Thinking about this, and going through the notes, one strikes me. Italo Calvino in “If on a Winters Night a Traveller” speaks about relationships with books. You walk through a bookshop, eyes wandering, moving past “the Books You Haven’t Read, the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered, the Books That You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case.” A similar system could exist for our memories. I consider my memories and find the Long Term Deep Memories. The Memories That Are Meaningless. The Memories I Have Only Due To The Fact That I Have No Memory Of That Happening At All But I Have Been Told it Happened. Alcohol generally contributes significantly to that one. For stories it’s the same. The Stories I Remember. The Stories I Don’t. The Stories That Mean Something To Me. The Stories That Don’t.
This brought up another question. Are the things we read ever meaningless? We can read a novel, an article, a short story, and be completely unaffected. But doesn't the fact of finding no meaning in something we read, by some virtue, give those stories meaning? In the sense that, they are a part of us. Whether they speak to, inspire, enrage us, or not.
Does it even matter anyway? Tim O'Brien in the previously mentioned “How To Tell A True War Story” one of the best stories in “The Things They Carried” speaks of the truth of stories. That stories become what they seem, not a factual recreation of events. Nevertheless, they still remain truthful. I feel a similar sentiment extends to the the things we read. Whether we remember or not, why we read doesn't rest on that fact. Our perceptions become both a mix of what we feel seemed to happen and our own feelings on the matter.
The writing of this has been an exercise in catharsis for me. Even changed my perceptions on why I read. This brings me to thoughts of another Tim O'Brien story. The also previously mentioned “Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong”. A wonderful story — Apocalypse Now meets Romeo and Juliet.
Rat Kiley tells the story of Mary Anne Bell. A fresh faced young blond girl, shipped off to her boyfriend in Vietnam, who was stationed there. Dreams fill their heads of marriage, a happy family. All after the war of course. ‘Nam gets her though. She becomes engulfed by the country. It’s a living, breathing entity to her. She wants to eat the whole place up. She ends up with the Green Berets, manic, captured by this place. Dancing with a necklace of human tongues. The story is truly remarkable. But the true ending is never revealed. “You can’t do that.” The men cry. “It’s against the rules.” So Rat finishes the story, an ending filled with the subjective. A lack of absolutes. An ending built on an elaborate mosaic of whispers and maybes.
As Rat tells it, Mary Anne Bell walked off into the forest one night and never came back. There were theories of her whereabouts. All guesswork. If you believe the Berets, they think she’s out there. The there? Semantics. She’s part of the darkness, “odd shapes, odd movements.” Her presence now part of the forest. She has become the shadows around them. Still wearing her necklace of human tongues.
My memories of the stories I read are the same. Unfinished. A lack of absolutes. A mosaic of whispers and maybes.
So I’ll continue to take my notes. But it doesn't really matter, like the ending to the story of Mary Anne Bell doesn't matter. The things I read and my memories of them are a part of me, staring at me from within.