Book Memories

I’ve always been proud of my memory. I remember as a kid I found the word “eidetic,”and didn’t quite understand that it was the same thing as “photographic,” so I began using it to describe my memory. It’s not eidetic, actually, because the word describes the ability to recall visual images with remarkable vividness after only a short time of exposure, and my visual memory is awful. But I can remember trivia like nobody’s business. It never takes me more than two days to memorize all of my students’ names, for instance, and I can rattle off half of the rules of D&D with no trouble.

In the last few years, however, I’ve lost that pride in my memory. Partly because as I’ve grown older it has become less sharp, less capacious; I forget stuff now. My wife used to call me her Port-a-Mem, because she could tell me to remember something and I would; now I need to write stuff down. But the larger reason is that I can’t seem to recall my own childhood very well. I have a friend who has almost perfect recall of anything that happened in our childhood, and I don’t have any recollection of half the things he talks about the two of us doing in our elementary school years. I have to struggle to remember my teachers, or any of the lessons I learned in school. Holiday memories, meals or presents or specific events; I have very few. I remember we went to the Christmas Revels every year, but I don’t remember them. I remember going to First Night in Boston, both with my family and with my friends, but all I remember is those frigging plastic trumpets, the same ones that made such a noise at the World Cup a few years ago. I read about authors who use their childhood as a treasure trove – or maybe a mine shaft is a better analogy – from which they draw ideas for prose or poetry, but I feel like I don’t have that. It feels like a disadvantage, like a vital element of being a writer that I lack. I know this isn’t unusual, either for people in general or for writers in specific – we ain’t all Marcel Proust, who wrote seven volumes starting from the memory of a cookie – but it makes me a little sad that I have a good memory that used to be a great memory: only not for myself. My own life is, while sometimes clear and picture-perfect, mostly a blur.

But then this morning I realized something. It may be that the reason why I don’t have a very good memory for my own life is because my memory is already full: of the lives of other people. I remember books.

Maybe it’s not unusual, maybe there’s nothing special about my memory of books, but I remember them quite well. My wife has, on several occasions, bought a book that sounds interesting, started reading it, and then discovered that she has read it before; I never do that. I can always pick out the books I’ve read before. I remember the books I teach, too; far better than I remember the students I taught them to. I haven’t taught John Knowles’s insipid novel A Separate Peace in ten or twelve years; but I still remember that it’s in the fourth chapter when the narrator throws Finny out of the diving tree; and it’s chapter ten when Leper Lepellier goes crazy. I remember some of the details about the daily life of Ivan Denisovich, and the cloned generations of Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, even though I only taught those books once apiece.

I remember that the book where I found the word “eidetic” was Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant. And I remember almost everything about that whole series. Hope Hubris was the guy with the eidetic memory. What a terrible name. I thought it was so clever at the time.

So I’m thinking now that somewhere along the line I made the choice: I was going to remember what I read. I have wanted to be a writer since about the 4th grade, so that may be about where I decided; that was when my family read Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe together, one of my fonder – and clearer – memories of childhood. I also read Tolkien and a whole lot of books by Anthony around that time; this is why I write fantasy and science fiction and horror, I would think. (Horror also because at age 13 I discovered Stephen King, and I have never stopped reading his books.) So perhaps I dedicated some of the memory that would otherwise have captured my own life to the retention of the fictional lives I read about.

Now I just have to decide if that’s good or bad.

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