S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

Book memory

I never read War and Peace. Other people have, and still others may falsely claim to have, but I won't even pretend. I haven't read it. While I often think about books I haven't read, this particular book I haven't read has been on my mind lately thanks to a recent BBC New Magazine series on bluffing about what one has read.

To prove how effective bluffing about a book-reading experience can be, the series presented a conversation between the author of a guide to book bluffing and a literature professor. The conversation was presented without speakers listed - it was up to the voting audience to guess whether speaker A or B was the one bluffing about the book.

Now in this instance, although it doesn't say so, I presume that the literature professor - who has indeed read War and Peace - read the book vaguely recently - or has at least taught it again somewhat recently. Some people have a very sticky memory for everything they've read. I'm not one of them, however.

I've read many books in my life, including ones I know I have forgotten. Sometimes, the title alone isn't enough of a prompt for my memory, but the blurb is. I've occasionally realized halfway through reading a book that I've read it before.

I have specific examples of books I've forgotten. In fourth grade, I read all of the Newbery award-winning books that there were. Looking over the list now, there are many whose contents entirely escape me. I know I've read them though, so it would be dishonest of me to say otherwise. At the same time, it's almost as if I haven't, for it's not as if having read the ones I've forgotten does me any good except to know I was a completist about that project.

The sad truth is, when reading was long-enough ago, or not terribly memorable to start with, someone who's read a summary of the book would sound more as if they were a reader of it than I. What does it mean to have read a book? Is memory of its contents required for such a claim to be meaningful?

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