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?