On Loving Books I Can’t Remember

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel Chasing the Sun, which was chosen as Latinidad’s Best Debut Book of 2014. Her work has been published in Latina magazine, Writer’s Digest, and NBCLatino.com. Born in Lima, Peru, she came to the U.S. at age four and grew up in South Florida, where she studied Creative Writing at the University of Miami. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @NataliaSylv.

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in malice quite closeAsk me to recommend a favorite read and I’ll spout title after title of books I’ve loved. The Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar. In Malice, Quite Close by Brandi Lynn Ryder. Mirage by Soheir Khashoggi.

Ask me what the stories are about and I’ll stumble over character names and plot lines and even a simple two-sentence summary. It’s embarrassing to admit, but if I read it more than one or two years ago, I probably just don’t remember.

I’ve struggled with this realization for a while now. I tell myself I’ll go back and reread them, but there’s always some shiny new book I’m dying to read instead, and endless piles on my shelves I still must get to. When I consider how many books I consume each year, I suppose it’s not so bad. Books are like people, I often think: full of depth and character, interesting to some of us but not others. Like the many people I encounter in my daily life, I can’t remember everything about them.

But still. The other day I remembered that I have a Goodreads shelf titled “Unforgettable,” but I’ve forgotten the most basic things about the books on it.

What my memory has preserved is that I read In Malice, Quite Close in two days, in one of my favorite apartments I’ve ever lived in, and that the dialogue was some of the best I’d ever encountered. I still think of the main character (what the hell is her name?!) anytime I see a glistening pool outside a lavishly kept house.

I can recite the first line of The Anatomy of a Disappearance because reading it for the first time was like getting it tattooed on my heart. I savored that story over a week that was unseasonably warm for January. I think of the wind against my neck, mixed with a memory of chlorine, when I recall the young protagonist meeting his future mother-in-law poolside for the first time in Alexandria. I Googled that scene just now to double-check it was Alexandria.

How much of a book do we have to remember to love it the way it deserves? I’m ashamed to admit that in the first draft of this post, I confused Mirage with Mosaic, another Khashoggi novel I enjoyed, though the former is my favorite of the two. It makes me feel slimy and selfish. Loved it, ravished it, moved on to the next. I’m like that jerk who sleeps with someone and calls them by another name.

Except I still think about so many of these books. I long for them in random moments and abstract ways. Every day, I consider something or decide something, knowing that if I’d never read certain stories, I’d be a different person making different choices. I walk by my bookshelf and open up to a dog-eared, highlighted page, just to briefly re-experience a passage that’s stayed with me.

To all the books I’ve loved and forgotten: forgive me. My only defense is the words of Maya Angelou. Yes, she meant people, but we’ve already established books are like paper versions of humans. People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but, people will never forget how you made them feel.

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