Over the past few years, I have begun to keep track of what I have read through the course of each year by placing every finished book onto a separate “completed” bookshelf. Some years are better than others, but I have been averaging about 100 books a year. Compared to the prodigious rate at which some people read, this may not be impressive; compared to my aspirations for reading when I buy five books on Friday night and dream that I could finish them all by Sunday, it falls far short. And yet, even at the rate of 100 a year, I will look at the shelf and realize that I don’t even remember reading some of the books on there.
Maybe this is sheer careless reading or inattentiveness, but maybe it is true of life more generally. Some reading has stayed with me through years, but I have forgotten the great bulk of everything I have ever read. It is a sad reflection, made sadder when I realize that the same is true of my life more generally. Most of my experiences and feelings have also slipped away from my memory, but at least I can go back and re-read a book – those parts of my life are lost forever.
What a wonderful post. Funny enough, I thought it was going to inspire me to write a little bit about books and reading, but now that I’m sitting here at the keyboard, I find my thoughts going in a different direction entirely.
For most of my adult life, I’ve played a little game with myself around Christmastime. I try to retain at least a few vivid memories of each Christmas and “recite” them in chronological order, starting from the earliest I can remember at around age five or six. I don’t mean I literally deliver a meandering soliloquy out loud; I just mean I attempt to set aside some uninterrupted time to concentrate and systematically reflect on one Christmas after another, to keep the embers of memory glowing. Why? Well, aside from the surface-level answer that it’s my favorite time of year and memories are plentiful, there’s the fact that, in a way, I’m attempting to pause the flow of time, to gather all those Christmases Past and relive them now, all at once, to join the Webster’s Dictionary I got from my dad for Christmas of 1982 together with the Christmas morning I spent watching the sunrise with my dog on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1996 and the Christmas of 2003 when I spoke to my grandmother for the last time, and so on. A world in a grain of sand; eternity in an hour; a lifetime of disparate experiences gathered under one arbitrary temporal roof to celebrate together. It’s like I’ve constructed a Simonidean memory palace, one decorated with strings of electric lights and fragrant with the scents of pine, peppermint, holly, and sage, with choral versions of carols playing on an endless loop in the background.
Most of my life has of course been forgotten, and that’s as it should be. The past can be a gorgon if we stare too deeply into it. As Lewis Hyde said in his excellent book A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past, “a pure, triumphant memory will mean an end to emerging life and a fixing of time, everything stuck just where it is (stuck, we might say, in those eternal, unchanging forms).” Nothing can renew itself if it isn’t allowed to disappear. In this case, though, I can’t resist the urge to thwart that natural cycle. If, when my life is over, I should find myself as a shade in Hades, being commanded to drink from the waters of Lethe, I’d like to think that I could find a way to pull some sort of trick to keep the memories of December 25th safe from the water’s obliterating effects, whether to smuggle them with me into the next life, or just to keep them for cheerful company in the netherworld.