Each time I talk to friends about books, watch critics discuss books on television, or read a book review in a newspaper or on a blog post , I am struck — baffled, often — by how much readers seem to remember from their readings. The critic, of course, is paid to remember. Yet even compared to lay readers my recollection of books is shoddy and fragmented at best. Often when trying to remember passages or details from a book, I am dumbstruck, and a frustrated and slightly disgruntled grimace creeps on my face, not unlike the expression of Dante Rossetti’s Mmenosyne:
Thus the question How and what do readers remember? fascinates me both in its own right and as a means towards self-improvement. In my estimation, and this might be stating the obvious, the best aid to memory is anything in a book that touches you, emotionally or intellectually, on a personal level. Whether a character feels and thinks the way you do, whether an incident reminds you of a significant episode of your life, or whether you share an opinion with the author (or rail against the author’s opinion, for that matter) — solipsism is a marvellous hook for memory, because it anchors details in a strong emotion or a strong opinion of your own.
But we also seek out books for new rather than familiar experiences. How do we remember those? At least as far as fiction is concerned, the answer is: imagination. And arguably the most easily imagined aspect of a book is plot. It needs less effort on the part of the reader’s imagination than, say, descriptions or characters, because plot is more structured and more readily summarized than the latter. We can structure plot according to cause and effect or chronology, and we can summarize it by incidents and episodes. We can of course summarize descriptions and characters as well, but we lose much more in a character summary than a plot summary, and there’s little in the way of structure available in descriptions of characters and scenes. If nothing else, plot is always linear, meaning dynamic, and never static. Admittedly, I am talking out of my ass here. Then again, how come common readers (except the French, but they don’t count) tend to prefer plot-ladden books to plot-less ones? Isn’t that due to the fact that plot sticks more easily? (This, of course, is not to say that plot is more important or more valuable than characters or descriptions, despite Aristotle’s assertion to the contrary; plot, he said, “is the basic principle, the heart and soul, as it were, of tragedy”. One can certainly question such a stance, as Nigel Beale does at his Nota Bene Books.)
However, it is one thing to remember the basic plot of a book and another to recall the various incidents that contribute to it. Here, as with characters and descriptions, a vivid imagination is key. Everybody knows that memory works best through association. It is much easier to recall things when we can connect them to memories which are already firmly planted in our mind. Since Simonides and his memory palace, memory coaches have taught audiences various such association-tricks. Such feats, however, while well-suited for remembering your shopping list, are not all that helpful when it comes to remembering a novel or essay. But our imagination does something very similar when it creates association-clusters that connect the verbal representations of events, characters and descriptions with vivid images, be they auditory, visual, or physical (“scrotum-tightening sea”, anyone?).
I still marvel at the apparent ability of some readers to create such vivid images of a book’s universe when I think of the few fleeting impressions I myself retain from my reading. Meanwhile, I wonder how much an active imagination is the result of active reading. Does an active imagination encourage the reader to pay closer attention to the text, or does active reading stir your imagination? Are the two separate entities, or are they linked? Is one a prerequisite to the other? And while we’re at it, what about the ontology of it all: what’s the relationship between the memory of what is written and the memory of what is imagined? If a reader reads sloppily and his imagination of a book’s character or event or description is, consequently, equally sloppy, is that memory justly called a memory of the book or is it just a memory of the reading experience?
Finally, one could ask normatively: What should we remember from our readings? After all, even those readers who immediately after the reading recall a lot of details tend to forget more as time goes by. What should readers retain from their readings: Words? Ideas? Images? Of course, the final decision is the reader’s to make. But the critic could play a part in it, too. His or her job is to compile a detailed memory — plot, characters, descriptions, arguments — and construe from it a coherent whole — the interpretation — that serves as a point of reference for remembering a book in the future. This mnemonic definition of criticism might be too reductionist for some, too traditional for others (the critic as the arbiter of what’s best to be remembered in the world). I believe it merits thought, nonetheless; after all, what worth has reading without memory?