My brain needs re-roofing

A good thing about reaching midlife: You know a bunch more stuff than you knew when you were, say, 20.

A bad thing about reaching midlife: You’ve forgotten some of the things you used to know when you were 20.

This is hammered home around here on a pretty frequent basis with teen homework. I’m sure I used to know trigonometry, and physics, and the details of the Homestead strike but darned if I remember enough to be of any help.

That’s okay with me, since Sam really shines when it comes to an encyclopedic memory for scientific and historical facts.

Where it bugs me is with books.

Becca’s homework this week was reading Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. A dutiful English major, I know I read it in college. I remembered it took place in an office. But that was all. I couldn’t hold up even one teeny bit of a conversation about it.

Similarly, I read a ton of Graham Greene and Isaac Bashevis Singer novels in 1984-85 when I was living in Israel. There was a used English-language book store called Sefer veSefel that I frequented. I remember scooping up Greene and Singer paperbacks there every week, secure that whatever I brought home would be a great read. Greene in particular was one of my literary inspirations, someone I aspired to emulate. Then 25 years went by without my reading either of them… and now, for the life of me, I can barely remember anything of their work.

It’s like my reading brain is a roof with a 20-year lifespan. It’s good for a while, but after a certain point, it wears out. The warranty expires. I need to re-roof. I need to re-read things that I’ve read already.

This is really annoying since I feel I can barely keep up with new books that demand to be read. Books by friends. Best-sellers. Critically acclaimed books. Classics that I missed. Books with some stylistic or thematic connection to what I’m trying to write.

And on top of that, now I need to start plowing through my entire college and 20-something reading list again?

This seems tangentially related to the spread of the Kindle and other electronic reading devices. One thing that is psychologically satisfying about old-fashioned paper-and-binding books is that you can put them on bookshelves when you’re done. They accumulate. Not only do all the colors and sizes and fonts look pretty lined up together, but they give an illusion of accomplishment. Each one is a trophy — consumed, digested, incorporated into our thoughts and memories. I look at my bookshelves and feel a sense of achievement at how much I have read and how much I continue to read. It all adds up.

Of course it’s a hollow achievement, if you look at it in the broadest terms. No one’s giving out prizes for reading 1,000 or 10,000 books. There are good people who read a lot and good people who read a little. On my deathbed, I am probably not going to be lying there thinking, “My life was worthwhile because I read every single novel by Hemingway.”

And now this decaying-roof of a middle-aged brain calls into question the significance of my trophy-bookshelves even more. Okay, I’ve read all these books, but if I’m forgetting them, what’s the point? Here on this shelf is Flannery O’Connor, whom I adored in college but haven’t read in 20 years. Just down the row is Moby Dick, which stretches for a whopping three inches but from which I can only recall the first three words.

BUT…. these paper-and-binding books have a physical face to remind me that they’re there. I can’t walk past their shelf without noticing them. They yell at me if I have forgotten them. They call out to be picked up and re-read.

If they were on a Kindle, they’d vanish into the files of cyberspace when I was done reading them. Sure, they’d be stored as bits and bytes somewhere, but I wouldn’t see them unless I actively looked for them. I’d be less likely to remember them. I’d be less likely, 20 years later when my roof-brain springs a leak, to pick them up as a patch.

My mind is proving to be disturbingly fickle when it comes to retaining what I’ve read. So I really like having paper-and-binding books around as memory aids.

If a book is read on a Kindle, and there is no living-room shelf to store it on, does it make a sound?

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7 Responses to “My brain needs re-roofing”

  1. johnmangels Says:

    I hear what you’re saying, and I have some mixed feelings. Not about what I’ve forgotten (and I have). About the book in the hand and the shelf idea. I suspect my wife, who is a librarian, would flat out agree with you. But our house is pretty much overrun with books (my fault) and I’ve given away a lot of books that I wish had had (and repurchased a lot of books I used to own) over the years. And moving (and trying to re set up) my library …
    Anne let me purchase a Kindle because I would not be adding more piles of books into the house. And because it would be cheaper.
    I actually find it more convenient (an easier) to read via Kindle (on my iPad). My suitcases and briefcases certainly weigh less. The print size means my eyes are less strained. And I have to go on a mission to find books again anyway. So far, at least, it’s generally easier via Kindle.
    Yet there is still something about owning shelves of books. And there is a smell …
    Kindle does not work very well for me with reference type books (though I have a usable combination of apps on the iPad for the Book of Common Prayer and the Revised Common Lectionary (for Sundays) and the Daily Office Lectionary, and a passable version of the (Christian) Bible). And there are some trade offs (I wish my markings and my this is where I am place markings showed up separately on my iPad, for example). But my bookmarks are no longer falling out of my books (and I’m not actually bending pages) electronically.
    Still, I wish I could remember more of what I’ve read and studied over the years …

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I am NOT an anti-Kindle person! I actually see lots of good uses for e-readers, especially for travel — Sam, who reads very quickly, was able to take one Kindle on vacation last summer rather than eight books. Or my old literary agent read submitted manuscripts on her Kindle, rather than lugging 300-page stacks of typed paper between home and office. I suspect I will get an e-reader myself at some point.

      BUT for books that I will want to keep and refer back to over the years, I think I will want to hold on to the print edition.

  2. molly schuchat Says:

    Ihave found that what I have forgotten of books reappears when I need it, for example as part of a lecture. Or when it becomes part of a discussion with others. Your retreival systen is better than you think, it needs context to work the old gears. And forget thinking that you are in decline in your fifties, that is not so at all. And the trig is alslo in your brain if you need it, maybe not advanced algfebra, but what are you using guadratic equations for?

  3. Kaveh Says:

    I know what you mean, Ilana. It WOULD be nice to remember the stories, calculus, etc. one read years ago.

    I think, though, that the leaky roof analogy, while cute, conjures an image that is sadder than it needs to be. In this case, it is not decay, but your brain that DECIDED, in an active way, to let go of the exact, easily racallable details of a story read long ago and focus more on what was more relevant on a day-to-day basis. I suspect that if we did remember all that stuff, we would be less effective in some way in our current daily lives.

    On a sadder note, there WILL be ‘decay’ a few more decades ahead!

  4. Donald Davis Says:

    I have inspected your brain recently and am certain that no new roof is needed. A shingle, perhaps. But not a new roof.

    I don’t really care about not piling up new books on my own shelves. What I will really miss is going to look at *other* people’s shelves and figure out who they are by what they read. A major clue will henceforth be suppressed.

    If you need an argument for a Kindle, here it is: Robert Caro. These train-stopper volumes always left me wondering whether I was reading or doing calisthenics. I am seriously getting through all kinds of books — technical, non-technical — that I never got around to because twenty pounds of paper was too much to hold up without soon declining into a nap.

    I am with Kaveh. So the shelves in your mind are slightly more compact than the ones in your study — is that so terrible?

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