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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?

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
wishus
Mar. 6th, 2007 10:59 pm (UTC)
I've occasionally realized halfway through reading a book that I've read it before.

I've done that. It's really annoying when you buy the book again too.
owlfish
Mar. 7th, 2007 12:19 pm (UTC)
I've done that too.
theengineer
Mar. 7th, 2007 12:13 am (UTC)
If you want to fake reading a great work, there's nothing better than reading it's Wikipedia entry.
arcana_mundi
Mar. 7th, 2007 03:31 am (UTC)

I don't get the big deal about War and Peace. It's really long, but it's a really long, fabulous SOAP OPERA. I read it in one "lost weekend" of sheer readerly decadence. It didn't seem like high literature to me. But in the house I grew up in, Russian literature was Gogol and Solzhenitsyn (and WOW am I sure I butchered his name). That was the stuff I couldn't get through, no matter how skinny the volume.
owlfish
Mar. 7th, 2007 12:19 pm (UTC)
I may not have read War and Peace, but I have read The Gulag Archipelago. Nothing by Gogol though.
arcana_mundi
Mar. 7th, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC)

Deeeeeepressing.
a_d_medievalist
Mar. 7th, 2007 04:08 am (UTC)
I'm like that with lots of books -- even ones I've read fairly recently. I think that part of the problem is that, when I find an author I like, I tend to try to get everything I can by that author and catch up, as it were. I also tend to have a much better head for plot than characters, so I tend to think of books as "the one where ..." I definitely have that problem with mysteries and with Sherri Tepper, unless the plot really stands out. Well, most of her plots stand out, but there are certain tropes that she uses a lot: "mousy woman with overbearing/abusive/unloving male partner finds her true self and inner strength when aliens/dimensional shifts/ time shifts/The Patriarchy threaten The Survival Of Humanity", for example. Not that I've read all her books. I think there are two I've not read yet. Maybe.

And I confuse Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms ...

But yeah ... sometimes I can't remember things I've read, and sometimes think I've read things I haven't because I've heard enough about them that it seems like memory.

Sorry about the babble. It's late.
owlfish
Mar. 7th, 2007 12:21 pm (UTC)
I have this problem with Sheri Tepper too! Her plots are all very formulaic, albeit in an often very surprising way. There's always some realization which completely changes the nature of the world. But which book is which? I have down Family Tree, but not many of the others.
a_d_medievalist
Mar. 7th, 2007 12:30 pm (UTC)
I always am clear on Family Tree, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Beauty and A Plague of Angels ... Some of the others not so much. And I think I haven't read, or really don't remember The Gate to Women's (Woman's?) Country.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )