Our Reading Lives

The Bits of Stories We Remember

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How many details can you list about a novel you read years or decades ago? I only remember tiny bits of the stories I loved most. I’ve become fascinated by which specific detail I remember and why. Often for me, reading a book is like walking through a mansion and stealing just one small item. What makes our unconscious minds cling to one bit of a story and throw the whole rest away?

Most of us get impatient if we have to listen to a friend talk more than few minutes without getting our turn to reply. Yet, we’re willing to listen to an author for hours when reading. Novels are CrossFit training for attention spans. Books are the most time-consuming form of communication we decode. Songs enchant us for minutes, a television show grabs our mind for an hour, and we get restless if a movie runs much longer than two hours. Yet, a book can captivate our mind for a weekend.

The average novel runs 50-100k words (maybe 8-20 hours on audio). That’s quite a complex communique to receive. Authors often spend years encoding their message. We decode it in hours, generally missing most of the content even while reading. Over time, what we do absorb breaks down into tiny fragments of impressions and feelings.

Bookworms know the power of books, often claiming they change lives. Why do we remember nothing from most books and very little from the rest? My first essay for Book Riot asked: “Why Read What We Can’t Remember?” The answer, we read for the moment. But bits of stories stick with us and I’m intrigued by why those bits that have lingered.

Looking back over a lifetime of reading I find only hazy snippets from what I assume must be the most important stories. For the majority of those stories all I remember is a wistful feeling. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember a few details, like a vivid scene, or a fragment of insight about life, and if the book really resonated, the names and traits of some characters. Sadly, I’ve read thousand of books containing more fictional citizens than a real city, yet I doubt I could list more than forty with their names spelled correctly.

The details I remember often depends on the type of book I read. For me, memories are often determined by genre. Science fiction titles are retained by recalling far out ideas. Mysteries novels are etched in neurons by distinctive detectives. Westerns linger because of vague recollections of gunfights. Humor sticks because of bizarre views of life by not-so-normal people.

Literature is different, which probably explains its elevated status. With great books, I usually remember at least two characters, a place, and a time. When I’m struggling in life, or my friends tell me of their struggles, I remember books that illuminate those struggles. I often recommend literary novels when a friend tells me of an emotional experience that I’ve also experienced and know of a novel that goes deeper into that experience. I give them just a title, knowing my friends don’t want to hear me discuss literature at that moment, but might embrace the story when by themselves. Besides my memories are faint shadows of the actual work.

Generally, a book I’ve read is recalled when someone mentions a title. I might say, “Oh, I’ve read that one.” And when I’m asked what I thought of the story, the best I can reply is, “I liked it” or “I loved it” or “It was so-so.” That’s rather weak, isn’t it? When I was a kid I could bore family and friends with long recitations summarizing stories I was reading. After stuffing myself with fiction for decades, probably thousands of books, and tens of thousands of movies and television shows, the knack for detail summarizing has been crushed by the weight of all those tales.

Now that I’m older and looking backward I’m amazed, even amused, by what I do remember from my favorite books. What makes a character memorable? What makes a scene stick with you for the rest of your life? What emotional realization did you learn from a book read years ago that’s still relevant today? Why does a fictional moment get saved for use in real life?

For example, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I don’t remember the names of the characters, but do remember they were Asian American. I don’t remember the plot, but a kid died. I have a vague memory the writing was beautiful. Yet, this book is distinctive to me. I’m always reminded of it for a very specific reason – it’s lesson. In this case, relationships fail when people don’t tell each other what they’re thinking or feeling. Whenever I encounter such failures of communication I tell people to read Everything I Never Told You.

In all these cases what I remember is something useful. Maybe not philosophically insightful, or of practical use, but it’s something that explains an experience to me or lets me explain myself to someone else. Like the guy in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man sitting in his basement room with hundreds of light bulbs is my image of lonely intellectual obsession. Or the novella, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany is how I explain living with existential limitations. Delany also gave me my most useful philosophical insight from a science fiction novel. In Empire Star, he uses simplex, complex, and multiplex to explain relative viewpoints. There are several touchstones from Empire Star I use to communicate with a friend I’ve known for fifty years.

My Bible for studying desire, romance, sex, and love combines Great Expectations by Charles Dickens for the Male Testament with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen for the Female Testament.

Maybe my allusion to The Bible is telling because how I remember books is how most people remember bits of The Bible. We use incidents from fiction to explain events in our life like the faithful use parables to understand their spiritual existence.

The word limit of this essays keeps me from chronicle all my bookish memories, but those details are not what I’m trying to communicate. I’m just pointing out that I remember tiny fragments of books and I’m starting to see why. I wonder if other people remember more. Or if they remember different kinds of details than I do. Plots are wonderful for in-the-moment reading but seem of little value for real world needs.

I’ve always thought classics as books we remember, but now I’m wondering if the bits are more important the whole. How do you remember of your favorite books? The whole or the parts?