I saw some debate online recently about whether or not it is rude to an author not to finish a book of their that you start. I don’t think it’s rude. It’s pragmatic. Not every book works for every reader. Time is limited. So one must spend that time wisely. For me, that sometimes means quitting a book as soon as I don’t find myself drawn into it. There are too many other books waiting in the wings.
Sometimes, however, even when I do finish a book, it doesn’t stay with me. I may enjoy the book while I am reading it, but all memory of it vanishes after a time, and although I see it on the list of books I’ve read, I could give on the most vague descriptions of what the book is about. I was thinking about this today because I started reading Voyage by Stephen Baxter today, looking for a little science fiction interlude. I read this book back in September 1998, and although I remember it was some kind of alternate history, I remember almost nothing else about it. Granted, this was in the days before I started taking notes on books I read. Still, it was a little unsettling to realize that while I had read the book, I couldn’t remember it.
I decided to go through my list and see how many examples of this I could find. Here are some of the results:
- Idoru by William Gibson
- Humpty Dumpty: An Oval by Damon Knight
- Pyschoshop by Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny
- Voyage by Stephen Baxter
- Does American Need a Foreign Policy by Henry Kissenger
- From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey
- Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier by Mark Adams
I find it interesting that most of these are works of fiction. I seem to have a better recall for nonfiction than for fiction. In a way this makes sense. Fiction is more ephemeral and there is less to connect it to, while nonfiction fits in the larger mold of the world. I can always find connections of one work of nonfiction to another, often several others. Fiction can connect to other fiction, of course, and occasionally to nonfiction, but it doesn’t seem to have the same staying power in my memory.
I remember where I was or what I was doing when I read most of these books. I remember driving to the cliffs in Pacific Palisades and sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean while reading Idoru, for instance. I recall sitting in my office in Santa Monica early in the mornings (around 5:30am) reading Voyage, or sitting on the deck in from of my apartment in Studio City, chair tipped back, and feet up on the railings, reading Does America Need a Foreign Policy? I remember reading Bright Shiny Morning when Kelly and I were in the midst of planning our wedding. It’s just the content that is a blur. Of all of these, the one I most regret no remembering is East of Eden which I can recall enjoying, even if I can’t recall why I enjoyed it.
Fortunately, in a list of more than 1,100 books that I’ve read since 1996, there are only a handful that I don’t really remember at all. And in the last 10 years or so, the only one on the list that draws a blank is Tip of the Iceberg. For that one, at least, I have brief notes in my journal that I wrote at the time I finished it (something I began to do with all of the books I read when I rebooted my journal in 2017).
At some point, I’ll probably go back and re-read these to see what it was that I have forgotten.
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