On Forgetfulness

ON FORGETFULNESS….On Friday I received in the mail a copy of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read1, which, it turns out, doesn’t really offer much in the way of practical advice on its putative subject. Rather, it’s a rumination on the idea that when we talk about a book, we’re often talking not so much about the book itself as we are about the author of the book, other books written by the same author, what other people are saying about the book, the controversies surrounding the book, the historical context of the book, etc. etc. This frankly strikes me as such an obvious point that I’m not sure it’s really worth devoting an entire book to, but that bit of crabbiness aside, Bayard does manage to be both engaging and erudite on the subject, plucking lots of interesting little examples from literature of people discussing books they’ve either merely skimmed (Bayard’s preferred mode of reading) or not read at all. He also has the good sense to keep the book nice and short.

What interested me much more, however, was something very specific: the discovery that my own sieve-like memory for books was shared by no less a literary trailblazer than Michel de Montaigne. In the chapter on “books I have forgotten” (one of Bayard’s four categories of books; the others are “books I have skimmed,” “books I have heard about,” and “books unknown to me”), he quotes from Montaigne’s Essays2:

I leaf through books, I do not study them. What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else’s. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.

….To compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory, so extreme that it has happened to me more than once to pick up again, as recent and unknown to me, books which I read carefully a few years before and scribbled over with my notes, I have adopted the habit for some time now of adding at the end of each book (I mean of those I intend to use only once) the time I finished reading it and the judgment I have derived of it as a whole, so that this may represent to me at least the sense and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it.

What’s more, Montaigne admits that his memory is so poor that not only can’t he remember other people’s books, he often can’t even remember books that he himself has written. Bayard summarizes: “Following Montaigne, we should perhaps use the term unreading rather than reading to characterize the unceasing sweep of our forgetfulness. This process involves both the disappearance and the blurring of references, and transforms books, often reduced to their titles or to a few approximate pages, into dim shadows gliding along the surface of our consciousness.”

You’re singing my song, Montaigne! My retention level has gotten so bad that I literally barely remember the beginning of a book by the time I’ve finished the last chapter. Like Montaigne, it is only “the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued” that stick with me. Books affect how I think about things, but once that’s happened the actual details of what I’ve read disappear almost instantly.

And my own writing? Just as bad. I can read through my own blog archives from six months ago and it’s like reading someone else’s blog. Sometimes I’m impressed by what I apparently wrote earlier in the year and other times I cringe, but generally speaking it’s as if I’m reading it for the first time.

And forgetting entirely that I’ve even read a book? Check. Last year I bought a copy of George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails3, and thought it was a nice little story. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to clean up a bit and shelve all the piles of books lying around, and when I got around to shelving WGF I discovered I already had a copy. One that gave every sign of having been thoroughly read (I’m pretty tough on book spines). But I didn’t have even a clue of this when I was (re)reading it last year. Not even a single sentence, character or scene rang a bell with me.

This forgetfulness is one of the banes of my life. It drives me nuts. But now I feel slightly better. Instead of calling myself forgetful, I shall now begin referring to myself as Montaigne-esque. Much better.

(And I have something Montaigne lacked: Google. All hail Google, the amnesiac’s best friend!)

1SB+ (++ for Tyler Cowen)
3SB and, apparently, FB+

Note: I’m following Bayard’s usage here. He believes that we should all be honest about which books we’ve read and which ones we haven’t, and that we should not allow non-familiarity to prevent us from expressing an opinion about books. So, SB = skimmed, HB = heard of, UB = unknown to me, and FB = read once but forgotten. There are no other alternatives. Opinions are expressed using + and –.