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Remembering Your Past Through Books

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

In this great post from June 2012, Rioter Rebecca covers the question about whether book memories are sensory memories — you know, similar to how if you’re at a bar and catch a whiff of a particular perfume, it immediately reminds you of a romantic evening with a past partner. Or you’re drudging through your commute, and suddenly a song comes on the radio, and you’re tossed back to that few-week (month?) stretch in college where you did a bit more imbibing than one reasonably should at an institution of higher learning.

But I wanted to revisit the idea because I just finished Tom Rachman’s new novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, and in one terrific passage, he absolutely nails the idea of associative book memories. Near the end of the novel, Rachman’s protagonist Tooly, the owner of a tiny bookstore in a tiny Welsh village, wonders why it’s important to hang on to (hoard?) books. Here’s what she decides:

“People kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contained the past — the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of one’s intellect, whether the work itself had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty.”

We’ve covered reasons for keeping books several times over the years at Book Riot — Tasha did a great post last summer, and more recently, guest contributor Ashley talked about how she holds on to what she reads (spoiler: by keeping books). These are all great reasons, but to me, the best reason to keep books is for the memories associated with them!

If you’re like me, you’ve spent a good amount of time kind of spacing out in front of your shelves and reminiscing. Oh, right — I was reading JS Foer’s Everything is Illuminated during Marquette’s Final Four run in 2003. That was an awesome time! Hey, there’s Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind — I was plowing through that sucker the week I got stuck in Berlin because of an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano. Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs? That sure wasn’t his best, but I was reading it during the week I moved to Chicago, so I can’t deride it too much.

Associative memories with books — or as Rachman more eloquently puts it “the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time” — is not only why I hoard books, it’s also why I buy them as souvenirs when I travel. What better way to remember a trip than by both the books you read while you were there, and also the books you brought home?

Rachman’s quote also speaks to the idea that it’s not important to remember every detail of every book you read. Like this NY Times piece states, every book you read becomes a part of you, reshapes your brain in a particular way. And what sticks and what doesn’t about a particular book is a result of your particular circumstances at the time you were reading. I love that idea, too. It’s comforting.

So to wrap-up, let’s try some audience participation. If you also associate memories with books, and I’m sure a lot of you do, tell us about it! Comment below, or tweet your book memories with the hashtag #bookmemories. We’ll collect the best ones and post them here on the Riot. Happy reminiscing!