In an essay called ‘TBM and John’, collected in Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, Simon Schama makes a bold assertion:
You always remember where it was that you first read the books that changed your life.
To which my immediate response is: er, no!
I have, for instance, distinct memories of where I was when I first read Lawrence Durrell’s The Revolt of Aphrodite. I was lying on a stone bridge over a dried-up river bed in the middle of a Greek island eating sweet fat black grapes while being buzzed by soporific bees. But I would hardly say that The Revolt of Aphrodite changed my life. My life was changed more by The Alexandria Quartet, and while I remember distinctly where I was when I bought that book (a small bookshop in the Lake District) I have no idea where I was when I first read it.
One book that probably did change my life was The Affirmation by Christopher Priest. I know precisely where I was the time before last when I read it. I took it with me when I went to the doctor to have fluid drained from my knee; I fainted, the doctor panicked, had me rushed into hospital, and I spent most of a day there trapped because the staff were too busy to tell someone who wasn’t ill to go home. But that was only one of several readings. Before that? And before that? No, I have no idea where I was.
While some of the books that most radically changed my life were those with which I learned how to read. I remember where I was. Well, at least, I assume it was my childhood home. But I don’t recall any of the books.
So do you remember where you were when you first read the books that changed your life?
5 thoughts on “Memories”
Only one: Atlas Shrugged; read while at summer camp when I was 14.
All the others (and vastly more important ones in terms of literary quality) were so absorbing that my mind tended to lose track of it’s physical surroundings. Also, I carry the book I’m reading with me wherever I go so it’s never just a single location.
What I’m saying then, basically, is that Schama’s idea is nonsensical.
The more I think about it, the more I see Schama’s claim as yet one more version of that old thing: we all remember where we were when we heard of Kennedy’s assassination. Actually, I’m of the right age to have remembered it, but I couldn’t say where I was. (Curiously, I do remember where I was when I heard about the killing of Robert Kennedy.)
There’s this weird idea of memory as something that is fixed, that stays fixed, in which certain key moments are forever emblazoned on our minds. It’s a romantic notion, all about the durability of the past. But in my experience memory simply doesn’t work like that.
Some people have a good memory for names and faces, others don’t. Memories grow vague, get confused. Memory simply isn’t that sort of direct experience of the past. Or at least, if my memory is any sort of direct experience of the past, then it is several different versions of the past.
I think it’s Schama being rather trite and flip, either that or he has a very remarkable memory. If I think back, I can recall a mere handful of books about which I can be absolutely certain of where I was when I first opened them, and most of those I associate with my adolescence, when there were more photoflash moments: taking down the first volume of Lord of the Rings in the school library, opening it and immediately thinking ‘why did no one tell me it was about hobbits?’; working on an archaeological dig one summer and having someone recommend I read Gormenghast, things like that.
But now it’s less about the split-second of revelation, more about cumulative effect. I know where I was when I first encountered Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ because I can look at the syllabus, but my susbsequent reengagements with that text have been far more significant in shaping my thoughts about things. The same is true of almost everything else I read.
I think, when I was younger, there were books that I would say had changed my life. But now I think the cumulative effect of everything I have read has changed me far more profoundly than any individual work could ever hope to do.
Schama is assuming people even know which books changed their lives.