Friday, January 22, 2016


Why is it that I can remember books which I read 30 years ago and I cant remember books I read last week?
 In this article, I am thinking aloud about the possible reasons for my   memory's tricky functioning; the thoughts here are strictly my own and I have not tried to pick stuff from the internet or elsewhere

The books I have read recently and cannot remember much of are the books by Linwood Barclay, Harlen Coben, Christopher Reich, etc. I don't mean any disrespect to these authors. I derived a lot of pleasure and excitement when I read their books.
The authors whose books I read more than 20-30 years ago and can still remember the plots and characters clearly are James Hadley Chase, Enid Blyton, Georgette Heyer, Stuart M Kaminsky, Lawrence Sanders, Charles Dickens, P.G.Wodehouse, Alistair Mclean, etc.
 There are some authors who have written many but I have read only one book of theirs; These books made such an impact on me that I remember their plots and characters to this day. Some of these are Gone with the wind by Mitchell, To kill a mocking bird by Harper Lee, Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough, The far pavilions by M.M.Kaye and so on.

I have given below, my take on the reasons for remembering the characters and plots of some books so well:

Limited stimulation in my childhood and youth: I grew up without TV or the internet. I grew up with access to only a handful of magazines, no newspaper(my dad bought Kannada newspaper and I hated reading Kannada!) and a few film songs on radio. I did not feel like listening to the radio's news or weather or the government programs on agriculture! Which explains how limited my access to stimulation was! All I had was the one or two Kannada movies I saw in a month and the few books I read.
The absence of stimulation/distractions from a  wide range of resources such as TV, internet & music is  a powerful factor contributing to the  indelible memories of the books I read during childhood and youth. 

Distractions interfering with deep memory formation
The infinite stimulations of today, competing with books for my brain-space is definitely a strong reason, for not remembering  much of what I read these days.
Here is an example of distractions I have to avoid, in order to focus on one book, today. I am reading the novel, If the dead rise not; it is interesting and well written. Yet, my hand wanders over to the mobile next to me and I play solitaire, after reading a page; I then flip the remote to see an episode of a Norway serial. I then read a few more pages of "If the dead rise not'. Then I flip through the other novels in the same series, lying on my bedside table. I then go down to snack on some sweets. Back to book again, Then I go to the computer and check emails and Facebook, though there is nothing urgent I am expecting!
 30 years ago, I dint have TV, computer, phone, or this many exciting books lying around and for that matter, I dint have this many sweets in my fridge! In the past, thanks to my low income, I had a Spartan life, and that really helped me to 'focus' and really 'extract enjoyment' from the precious few things I had. I could read an entire novel from start to finish, without getting up at all!  These days, distractions (or my limited attention span)prevent me from being truly immersed in a book. If one is not truly immersed, then one is not really enjoying the book, ergo, the book is not memorable. Even if the book by itself is memorable, but one is not able to focus, to be immersed, then the book is functionally 'not memorable'.
For some reason, I can watch some TV shows, without getting distracted. Even if I can 'pause' the show and attend to my 'distraction', I dont. 

I had mentioned in another article about the pleasure of poverty. I want to state in this context that,  dearth of things works for me! I appreciate and enjoy what I have when I have little. When I have lots, I lose focus and don't have the patience to finish one and only then, move on to the next. These days of prosperity & plenty, I  am like a hyperactive squirrel in a fruit garden...instead of finishing one fruit, I take a nibble here and a nibble there,  tasting many fruit, without finishing even one.

Number of books read: In my childhood and youth, I had very limited access to books. Ergo, I read each book, I was lucky enough to lay my hands on with 'depth' & gratitude.  I was not finicky and accepted all the books I could get. I had access to few books and maybe I read them over and over or recalled and fantasized about them often.

However, when I moved to Canada in my late 30s, there was no dearth of books accessible to me!  I had access to literally lakhs of books and  this changed me :  I became picky and stopped reading a book if it did not hold my attention; I read books fast as I had a lot  more books to finish and return to the library; I started zipping through books; I would read three to four books at a time (one at the dinner table, one on the subway, one at lunch at work; one in bed at night)  I wonder if  all these changes in my reading pattern lead to the books not getting registered in my mind/memory.

Number of times the same book is reread: I tend to reread books I loved and enjoyed. I wonder if this rereading, contributes to the book staying in my memory longer than the ones I don't reread. Even if I dont reread, I may think about the story or fantasize about the characters, thus, making them stronger in my memory. 

My age: I read those 'well-remembered' books when I was younger and maybe a younger brain's memory holds on to things longer than an older brain's memory. But this does not fully explain why I remember the books I have read when I was in my 40s. I discovered Stuart M Kaminsky in my 40s and I remember the books of his I read at least 5-10 years ago. As one ages, one's long term memory remains strong while the short term and immediate memory deteriorates. Is this short term memory deficits of my aging brain a reason for my failure to recall books I read now?

I relate to some characters as some trait of theirs is endearing. This definitely embeds them in my memory for ever. The IQ of Lord Emsworth is so lovable and I can never forget him! I loved the goofiness of Archy Mcnally; I loved all of the traits of the character Sudden in the western series featuring him and so on. 

A character remaining 'honest' in what to me seems like an  impossible situation, gets indeliably etched in my memory.  The Rostnikov series of  Kaminsky, the Arkady Renko series of Martin Cruz Smith are unforgettable for this reason. 
 I think, the corruption of Indian politicians and government employees has had such a major impact on me that I am fascinated by  honesty, even if it's displayed by  fictional characters in corrupt countries. 

The characters: Maybe, there's something 'memorable & unforgettable' about the characters in the books. Who can forget Atticus Finch, the most universally loved characters of all time? Besides Atticus Finch, I have loved and etched in my memory characters such as Archi McNally of Lawrence Sanders books, Rhett Butler of Gone with the wind, Fredrica in the book Fredrica by Georgette Heyer, Elizebeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, etc.
But this also does not fully explain why I remember some books better than others!  I have really liked and admired the characters in the books I cant remember for long. I really enjoyed reading Deon Meyer's books & liked the characters but the characters are not as deeply etched in my memory as other characters from other books. The same goes for characters and plots of books by authors I have enjoyed immensely such as Christopher Reich, Deon Meyer, Linwood Barclay, etc.

 3 lists of the book-characters i.e. 
1)characters who I liked and  are deeply etched in memory,
2)characters who I liked but  are not deeply etched... but I remember them even after a few years and
3)characters who I liked but have almost forgotten.
Even if I make this list, I doubt, I can figure out what makes some characters unforgettable and some characters not so memorable.
I think it is the overall Gestalt of the characters, the plot, the writing style, the other characters in the book which make the book or the character memorable or not memorable.

Unforgettable characters(a few samples) Atticus Finch, Lisbeth Salander, Sophy (the grand Sophy of Georgette Heyer), Mark Girland of James Hadley Chase, Sir Galahad of the Blandings series by P.G.Wodehouse, Archy McNally created by Lawrence Sanders,Shardlake in the C.J.Sansom series.

Characters I have liked but forgotten(and writing here after searching on in the list of books I have read): Characters in books by Linwood Barclay, Harlen Coben, Alex Dryden,etc.

If one were to compare the personality of the characters of the memorable and not so memorable, there is not much difference between them. There are characters who are unique in both memorable and forgettable lists, there are characters who are strong or funny; tragic or good or suffering or not suffering in both lists. Yet, the characters in some books are etched in memory while others are not.
 Archy McNally is such a goofy character and I  wonder why I  remember him so well! Maybe I find  his goofiness so attractive and likable! Yet, the strong characters in books by Alex Dryden have simply not found space in my memory and I cannot explain why.  

I understand that it's the fantastic writing style of some authors like P.G.Wodehouse and O.Henry which makes the books memorable.

I understand that it's the story and plot of some books which makes them so memorable. Some books with fantastic storyline and plots are  stories from Greek mythology, the Mahabharatha, Tom Rob Smith's trilogy, etc.

It is the pathos and suffering of some books that make them memorable.
Books like Tristan and Isolde, Love story, Sohrab and Rustom are unforgettable.  It is the unrequited love in these which make the books/characters so unforgettable.

Yet, there are some books which have all of this but it simply does not work to etch them in my memory. What is lacking in these books?  Why do I enjoy them during the reading but don't remember after I am done?

The setting:I wonder if the setting of some places sticks to my memory while other settings are forgotten.
I wonder if some contexts are unforgettable while some  are not.
Similarly, I wonder if the ordinariness or uniqueness of some characters and their situations sticks to my memory but the same ordinariness/uniqueness  of other characters  makes them forgettable.

It is such a mystery to me why some books & characters are so memorable while all are not.

This American need to analyze and quantify 'everything', even those which cannot be quantified and measured is not working.
 I have to simply accept that I love some books and remember them; I enjoy some books but forget them.

It's going to take a lot more work and analysis(than I am ready to put in) to understand why some books are memorable while many are not. And even if I figure it out, what then? How is it useful to me? In fact the analysis may reduce my enjoyment of books!

The moon looks beautiful even if I don't know lunar science; the jasmine smells lovely even if I don't know what makes it smell so good; the rose looks beautiful even if I can't understand why it's of such a colour or shape.
A book remains cherished  in my memory, even if I don't understand why.

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