Books, Aftertastes, & Memory

We all know memory is a funky thing. I, at least, have those moments when I think "I am going to remember this for the rest of my life." And then, you know, I don't think I really do remember exactly that moment. But maybe I do? I can't remember. See that? That's the funkiness of memory.

And I feel like that very strangeness of memory is implicated in the weird inexplicable way certain books stick with you and others don't.

Here's what should be true: the books you love and experience most fully remain the most indelible in your memory.

Here's what is true: Random crap from certain books you don't even remember reading gets stuck in your head.

For instance? Jaws II. Yes, I read it—let's get that out there first. Second? It is emblazoned upon my memory, tiny stupid scene by tiny stupid scene: the guy looking down through the water at his neoprene-clad leg spinning into the depths, the lady water-skiing as the shark's hideous, gaping maw—those words exactly—loomed behind her. Do I remember the wording, say, of how Levin looked when he was ice skating on the pond in Anna Karenina, even in translation? No, of course I don't. For me, Jaws II is in my mind forever. This is not necessarily how I want things to be.

And I remember, too, things that never happened in books. I am sure—sure—that I read one of the Little House books, in which Pa found a large gold nugget, as smooth as an egg, while he was panning for gold. How satisfying this scene was in memory! I looked forward to re-experiencing it when I was reading those books to my girls. Except: I never read it to them, because it never happened. Each book I went through I waited for it, thinking "It's got to be this one!" and when it ended, "Well for sure it's in the next one." But it never came? Why? Where is it? Where did it come from, and why is it here stuck in my memory? I will never know.

So here is my question: What makes a book stay with you? Does it vary from person to person, or is it the books themselves that have the staying power? Does it have to do when where and when you were when you read a book? What the heck is it that makes a book leave an aftertaste? And where oh where is that scene with the big smooth egg-shaped piece of gold from?

5 thoughts on “Books, Aftertastes, & Memory

  1. The big smooth egg-shaped piece of gold does not ring a bell for me, but I sure hope you figure it out because that’s the kind of thing that’ll drive one crazy. In answer to your question, I would say that books — and movies — stay with me because of a perfect storm of events and feelings. I remember exactly where I was and what I felt when I read Jane Eyre — particularly the scene where she’s in the library and the mean boy comes in and kicks her. I remember the etching in my copy of the book and the green binding and the brown plush of the sofa in my den where I was curled up. Jane Eyre is always that scene and that color and that sofa. I could go on with other books, but then I’d hijack your post, but I thank you for the provocation.

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  2. Pa never panned for gold. I think the egg-shaped lump is from a book called Calico Palace by Gwen Bristow. A woman named Kendra slips down a hill at a gold mining camp and finds the lump. Does that ring any bells?

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  3. Rings no bells at all. I think it was a man, panning, though clearly my memory is not to be trusted.
    Argh, it really bothers me: I remember the description of panning for the gold so well, the dust that settled in the bottom, and then the glimpse of the big gold egg…. Someday I hope I will find it again.

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  4. Back in the days of Usenet, I used to read a message board called rec.arts.books.childrens. And one of the frequent themes was people posting requests for book identifications. People would say things like “It was about some children and all I remember is that they got stuck in a soap bubble” and everybody would chime in with the answer. It was satisfying to see how happy people were when they got a response, but also hugely fascinating to see what people remembered. It still exists as a Google group, though it’s not the same as it was in its heyday.

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