I have a question to pose this week, and it’s kind of a strange one: How important is it for us to remember the books that we read? Or, more specifically, how much of a book is it important for us to remember?
The main message, surely, is an important nugget to wedge into your gray matter after completing a novel. Once you close the covers of the Harry Potter novels, you should probably remember, if asked, that a main lesson was to defeat evil with love and not the other way around.
The main characters, too, should probably at least ring a bell. You might not remember their names, but hopefully you can recall something of what they wanted. Maybe you don’t remember that the main character of 1984 was named Winston (who could blame you, really), but you could probably, if pressed, recall that he was trying to rebel against an oppressive government, to escape the watchful eye of Big Brother.
The general idea of the setting is another aspect of a novel that you probably don’t want to blank on. If someone holds up a copy of Game of Thrones and asks you where it takes place, and you can’t remember if the story happens in an underwater submarine or in the magma-spitting center of a rumbling volcano in dire need of a lozenge*, that’s probably going to be embarrassing.
* it’s one of those two, right?
But, is it that big of a deal if you can’t recall the actual events of the book? If a year passes and you can’t really remember much about a book’s plot, does that mean you’ve failed as a reader — or that the book has failed as a written work? How detailed does the footprint have to be to count as an impression left on the reader? Are we talking bruise marks in the exact grooves of the tread, or can it just be a marking vaguely heel-shaped? Can you still count a book as one of your favorites if you can’t actually remember anything that happened in it?
I think so.
One of my favorite books is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I loved the imagery of the writing. Every sentence of the novel was so vivid, so evocative, that it made me want to write better prose. While the Fig Tree is one of the most famous of The Bell Jar’s quotations, I remember one of my favorite analogies was this one:
“I thought of crawling in between the bed sheets and trying to sleep, but that appealed to me about as much as stuffing a dirty, scrawled-over letter into a fresh, clean envelope. I decided to take a hot bath.
There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”
I love that imagery of a filthy person climbing into bed likened to a wrinkled up letter stuffed into a fresh, clean envelope. It’s so precise, and I can picture it so perfectly in my head. Years after reading the book, sentences like that still come back to me when I think about some of my favorite examples of words well written.
On the flip side of this, someone a couple months ago mentioned that The Bell Jar’s main character worked at an internship in New York. And my response was, “Did she?”
They also mentioned the main character’s name was Esther. My response was, “Was it?”
The argument could definitely be made that, if I can’t remember the main character’s name, and I can’t recall the barest detail about the plot, I probably shouldn’t count this as one of my favorite books. I mean, all I can remember about the book is that I loved the language, and that the reading experience was an incredibly heavy and emotional one. Is that enough?
As a writer, we concentrate so much on the details of the plot, on its logical consistency, on making sure that the train keeps chugging along the tracks smoothly, only turning or curving where we have laid tracks, only juddering or stopping at exactly the spots we intended. So you would think, as a reader, that I would be slightly more cognizant of and respectful of a plot’s sequential events. Knowing the work — the problem-solving, the decision-making — which goes into writing a single story, you would think I would remember more about any given book that I’ve read besides maybe two lines of prose that stood out and one lasting, oftentimes really random image.
Yeah, you’d be mistaken.
Let’s talk about the works of Neil Gaiman next.
Would you like to know what I remember about The Ocean at the End of the Lane?
Someone at some point was standing in a kitchen cooking, and I remember feeling hungry. And when I think of the book, I think of evening time on a country road, lit silver by a starry sky.
What about Coraline? I saw the movie for it as well as reading the book, so I should remember some basic details about the plot, right?
When I think of Coraline, the only thing that comes to mind is a very strong image of moonlight glinting off a black button eye.
And there was definitely a talking cat. But that’s it. That’s all she wrote.*
* That is actually and definitely not all he wrote. There’s a whole story going on in Coraline (as is, coincidentally, the case for most stories) about a girl who accidentally crawls through a portal and gets caught in an upside down, inside-out, slightly-creepy-and-whackadoodle version of the world she wishes she could return to. But if you asked me any specifics about what happened in the novel itself, the absolute best I could add is … at some point there was a needle. And maybe it was being waggled threateningly?
What about The Graveyard Book? I remember there was a song in the beginning that foretold the events to come, and I can picture a sort of cold, gray street with dry leaves skittering down it. Is that a description from the story, or just a general atmosphere the book imprinted on me? Who knows! I sure don’t!
I can’t even suggest that my tenuous grasp on the specific details of even the most well-written story is due to the time which has elapsed since I’ve read it. Because, I say as I fling my arms out wide, take my next example:
Turtles All The Way Down, by John Green.
I read John Green’s latest novel, wait, let me check… squeegees my eyeglasses clean and squints at the screen oh, yes, three months ago. You would assume the story would be fresh on my mind, then, right?
I remember I liked it.
I remember I read it in a single sitting.
I have a vague mental image of a mansion sitting on immaculately manicured, rolling green lawns.
And … that’s … about … all.
To Kill A Mockingbird was the first book I ever read that made me want to become a writer. It was the first book I ever read that made me appreciate that a story wasn’t just something you told, it was something you consciously crafted. It was my favorite book for a spectacularly long time, almost entirely for these sentimental reasons.*
* Eventually, though, I would read The Remains of the Day and the very existence of any other work of literature would be promptly exploded from my brain as though I had been smacked in the ear with a tsunami.
But if I was in an English class today, tasked with diagraming the plot of To Kill A Mockingbird from memory, I’d have a dot near the end that says “Boo Radley attacks”, a dot in the middle that says “Something about a trial”, and a dot placed slightly off to the side that says nothing more than “Ham.”
Again, I’m pretty sure the actual plot was slightly more involved.
And yet, these are all still some of my favorite books ever. The Bell Jar will still sit on my Favorites shelf. I will still recommend Neil Gaiman books to literally everyone who mentions a passing fondness for fantasy, or horror, or lyrical novels that read like a dream. Turtles All the Way Down is going to rank as among my Top 2 John Green novels, and To Kill A Mockingbird is still the book that made me want to write.
I firmly think it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember a book’s finer details off the top of your head. If closing your eyes and thinking of the title only brings back a scattershot of images, like a mental moodboard of the novel’s aesthetic. If the main character’s name has escaped you. If you can’t remember Location A-B-and-C plots of the journey, but only that you enjoyed the ride.
If a book leaves you with even one lasting memory, one impression, one taste on the back of your tongue, then the story has accomplished something, and your act of reading it wasn’t in vain.
And for writers worried that someone might read your book and not be able to recall much of its plot weeks later, I wouldn’t take it as discouragement. We can watch a dance performance and know that it was art, and that it was fun, and that we were entertained, without remembering, afterwards, every step the dancer took across the stage.
Maya Angelou summed this up beautifully and succinctly:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Books entertain us in the moment, and you can never quite anticipate what footprints they will leave. Just because the entire routine isn’t stomped step-by-step into your brainpan doesn’t mean you don’t remember it, or that it wasn’t important, or that it didn’t mean something to you at the time. And for writers, if your descriptions are vivid, if your characters are engaging, if your story means something, it’ll leave an impression. Even if the only thing the reader remembers later is that they really, really liked it.
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