What do you remember from things you’ve read?
Oftentimes, I find that as little as a week or two after I read something, all I’m left with is the tone of a piece of writing, or the general feeling it called out in me while I was reading it.
I’m a pretty slow reader, not by choice. I remember when I was growing up, I would watch other people read, and notice how their eyes would scan evenly along a line, then zip back to the start of the next line below and scan at the same even speed. I feel like the activity of my eyes while I’m reading is more like little leaps from word to word. I linger on certain words longer and often have to go back to reconsider the meaning of a phrase.
That was a little bit of a digression, but I wonder if this physical process has any connection to the way I experience reading and remember it.
I work as a bookseller in a small independent bookstore in Chicago, and when people ask for my recommendations, the most common requests I get, after people who are blindly asking for “something really good,” are for books that have certain kinds of plot-lines. I often forget what books are about, especially how they end. I listen to my coworkers spout the major events of novels they read five or ten years ago, and all I can remember is the way the authors’ phrases tended to double-back on themselves or how the character kept making choices I wanted to be angry about, but whose motives I suddenly understood. While these are the recommendations I love to get – abstract concepts that sound intriguing or the mere passion of a reader – I realize that most of the customers in my store are looking for a book to divert their attention in some way, and that their major tool of distraction is not usually exciting language.
For instance, even some of my favorite books that I’ve read multiple times I can only remember fleeting details:
I remember being consistently surprised and then comforted by the format of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I remember only that a woman believes she might be the last person on earth and that there are cats and that she spots smoke in the distance numerous times.
I remember feeling like crying a lot in The Book of Disquietude and spending more time copying down passages than actually reading. I remember that Bernardo Soares was a clerk (?) of some sort.
I remember thinking, during Reasons to Live, that there were very exciting new ways to make sentences that were really just relaying the boring, necessary details of a story. I can only actually recall one story in particular’s plot line: “The Man from Bogota.”
What do you remember from reading? A week after? A month later? Years beyond the last page? Can you spout plot points or do you instantaneously memorize certain lines? How do your eyes move?