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At the Sound of the Tone…

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?

8 thoughts on “At the Sound of the Tone…

  1. i often have a hard time concentrating when i’m reading about what things are about. i get bored with abouts really quickly. i say, oh not another about! when i read i kind of want the words to float to the background of my consciousness like elevator music and provide an atmosphere i can sleep peacefully in. this has become my default way of reading. if it becomes apparent i am supposed to be paying attention to the meaning of words, usually because the aesthetic atmosphere being generated is too dull, i’ll stop and go back to the beginning and read again with consternation and try to pay attention to it.

    what i take from novels years after that have stuck with me are the ambiances of things, collections of images that build atmospheres. Rarely events unless the novel is obviously eventful. Like I remember reading East of Eden a long time ago, and I have no memory of the characters or what that book was about, but I have the way the house was arranged very clearly in my head, and their view out the window, and the way the kitchen and rooms are lit at nighttime, like i’ve mentally constructed the ambiance of their house so that house has stuck with me. Actually, the floorplans and decor of houses I’ve constructed that characters move around in stick with me a lot.

    1. Curious: is this different for dialog than it is for descriptive prose? I mean, do you prefer dialog to be more aesthetic atmosphere than characters sharing/voicing ideas?

  2. The kind of reading I think you’re describing Jac (and Darby) is called ludic or pleasure reading which Victor Nell writes about here:

    Among his conclusions he states that if you like a text, then you’ll read more slowly, and that when you’re completely immersed in a text you may exhibit signs similar to a hypnotic trance.

    According to the paper he based his finding on five studies:
    (1) reading ability and reading habits,
    (2) reader speed variability during natural reading,
    (3) reader rankings of books for preference, merit, and difficulty,
    (4) the physiology of ludic reading, and
    (5) the sovereignty of the reading experience.

  3. I’ve always thought of this details-of-books-memory loss as a fault of mine that I’d constantly try to cover up. There are books I love so much I’ll keep them forever, but I can’t describe the plots to you. I just know they were “amazing” or some other totally generic descriptor. This was terrible when working at the bookstore. I loved handselling books, but please don’t ask me in what country the book took place, or if the ending was too sad. Writing those little recommendations helped. I should write them around my apartment? I think this is why I tend to respond to book recommendations that compare a book to other, not necessarily plot-similar, books. If you tell me it’s like Kelly Link or Shirley Jackson, I’m there. I want that feeling.

    You’d think this would lend itself to loads of re-reading, but I rarely re-read. One, maybe two, re-reads a year. Are you a re-reader?

  4. I sometimes remember the humor, like the situations (A goose bludgeoning dude in Straight Man, anything in Confederacy of Dunces) and I’ll laugh out loud. It makes me happy for a moment, so the book carries forward its glow.

  5. I am with you 100%, Jac. I never remember plot lines because as a general rule plot doesn’t interest me. Typically, I focus my attention on the language — and either it is exciting/compelling, or else I put the book down.

    One thing that gets me is when someone asks if I’ve read a certain book and my answer is yes, but then they want to talk about it and all I can remember is that the main dude drives to some place through this valley of ash and there’s this billboard advertising glasses or something, and the dude lives on a cape or something and across the bay there is a green light and for some reason the guy telling the story isn’t the main character.

    Or else, all I remember about a book is that I loved it. Sean’s example of Confederacy of Dunces is a perfect example. I read it maybe fifteen years ago and all I really remember was that the main dude was called Ignatius, he sold hot dogs (or loved hot dogs?) and lived with his mother and at one point started a union revolt in a flag making factory (or something) where he was the only white guy. But I remember the experience of reading it, remember laughing out loud and really enjoying it. I remember that it made me really happy.

    It seems like I have read so many books in my life, but just because my eyes have physically scanned the words doesn’t mean I can remember any of them. This leads to always make excuses like: “Yes, I have read Dante’s Inferno; but I do not recall anything more than Virgil being there and a sign over the mouth of hell that says Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

    Do you have to remember a book to able to say you’ve read it?

    1. Hey Chris,

      Have you read Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read? It’s an ironic and a hilarious book that calls into question the cultural expectations about reading recall and retention, and then examines its concomitant neuroses. Bayard’s answer to your question is, no, not only do you not have to remember a book to say that you’ve read it, you don’t even have to read it.

  6. Darby: Yes. Once in a while, I will really get into a book that’s mostly plot – a couple months ago I devoured “Let the Right One In” pretty quickly, but I do wonder if I remember the plot points because I watched the movie halfway through my reading, and thus was comparing back and forth what happened in each. And I’m very interested in remembering the floor plans you lay out in your mind for books. It makes the idea of the general atmosphere I seem to come away with more concrete.

    Shya: I’m trying to think of dialogue in recent books I’ve read, and I think even with dialogue, there’s an attitude of the ways the characters speak that flows with the voice of the novel. I just read Lore Segal’s “Lucinella” two or three weeks ago, and I remember there was quite a bit of dialogue, but all of it had a lucid dream kind of quality that was similar to the way the narration moved. Things seemed to keep missing in the way people talked to each other. So I guess I think my impressions hold for dialogue.

    John: You are like the research assistant here. Thank you. I’ll just say random things and you can find the theory to back me up. And, yes, I’ve flipped through that Pierre Bayard book many times; perhaps it’s time to actually read the book about not having to read books to be able to talk about them.

    Pam: Nope. I’m not really a re-reader, unless I want the experience of reading something again for nostalgia’s sake, or if I know I’m gonna be involved in an intense discussion on it.

    Sean: I’m pretty sure I’m incapable of even remembering situations that made me laugh. Well, I’m trying to think of one now, and all that’s coming to mind is a time I heard Adam Gopnik read a story about his daughter’s imaginary friend, Charlie Spaghetti. That’s pretty sad that that’s all I can come up with right now.

    Christopher: I think he just liked hotdogs and I think it was a pants factory. Wow. I feel proud. Oh! Oh! and it was set in New Orleans, right? And the other book was “The Great Gatsby,” but even then, I only remembered that because of the symbolism discussions in high school. Who knows if I’d remember anything at all from that book if I hadn’t been expecting a quiz on it? No, I don’t think we don’t need to remember anything. But it might mean, as a bookseller, I need to judge the little old ladies a bit less harshly when they come back with the Janet Evanovich book they just bought and tell me they got 50 pages in and realized they’d read that one already.

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