Memory is a fickle friend. Some things we remember in minute detail; The birth of our children; The death of a parent; crouching in a closet after a tornado alert; The moment we heard Elvis was dead (I was playing with my brother’s train set on my parent’s living room floor. I cried.). The glue that binds our most vivid memories is, at its core, emotion.
When asked what my favorite books were as a child, I can spout off titles, but what I most remember is how each book made me feel. Without that emotional resonance, the stories would fall victim to that wasteland of my memory marked “forgettable.”
I find the same holds true today. I am an avid reader, as most authors are. I have my daytime reading that typically relates to my current work-in-progress, and my nighttime reading which is almost always a novel that, if compelling enough, holds my sleeping hours hostage. I read ALOT. Why don’t I easily recall details from every book I read?
The answer might be in the way my brain processes them.
Hang on tight. This post is about to embark on a kooky ride. Yes, it is a total diversion from my typical blog posts. No, there is no entry fee. If I bus-jacked the MAGIC SCHOOL BUS, here’s how I envision my memory would look.
The imaginary journey through my memory begins in a cavernous space divied up into separate rooms. I meander past a bazillion chambers identified by the particular event, people, or miscellany of my personal history. From Christmases, roller skates, horse shows, bad haircuts, April Fools pranks- they’re all here. Off to the right, past the “vacation room” is a red vault marked “book memory?” I open the door and trip the “Jaws” theme song. (Ugh! There’s no getting rid of that tune.) The room is dark and round, like a grain silo, open at the top where a single beam shines like a spotlight. The room is cramped. Space is limited.
There are “snippet” columns of books, the varying heights indicating the extent of memory recall. Notice that my books aren’t neatly shelved, but stacked on the floor. A few go as far back as my childhood. Others are recent. For these titles, I remember only snippets of the book. Maybe a character, event, newly-learned fact, or impressive visuals. Most of these books are slightly shaded and a bit dusty. The columns are attached to the floor with velcro or double-sided tape (stay with me, here)—a little unstable. At any moment, they risk oblivion when the next book lands in the chamber, threatening to knock one out of my memory. They are barely hanging on. Ask me about one of these books and I’ll likely remember at least one factoid about the story, but I’ll have to dig for it.
Beyond the columns, a well-worn path leads to a large hole in the floor marked “forgettable.” From the opening, I peer in at the cluttered heap of books that look only vaguely familiar to me. Like the island of unwanted toys, these tomes have subconsciously been discarded from my memory. Their crime? They didn’t make me feel anything. There was no glue to keep them up top, under that revered light of consciousness. I suddenly feel guilty and hope that, despite my indifference to them, other readers may have loved these books. I am reminded of the subjectivity of reading and writing. But the reality is, if you ask me to recall something about each of the vanquished, I may return a blank stare.
As I look away from that pit of discarded memories, my eyes are drawn back to the bright middle of the room. Columns of books are illuminated center stage. They are shiny and glittery (okay, I’m getting carried away.) I can still smell the ink and hear the turn of each page, and feel the weight in my hands. Ahhhh! These well-structured, expertly crafted stories were infused with the secret ingredient, the all-empowering answer to my book memory—Emotion. Here live the tales that made me cry, laugh out loud, contemplate a universal truth, question a common belief, relate personally to the character or hold on for a white-knuckled ride. They are a happy, sad, hysterical, furious, curious lot. Not only do I remember these stories, I’ll tell other people about them.
Alas, the answer to my earlier muddled question about why my memory is long for some books and short for others is answered.
Readers may not remember the minute details of our stories’ plots. But you can bet they’ll remember how our books make them feel.