One of the comments made frequently by reviewers is how a particular book lingered with them long after they reached the final page. I’ve certainly had that experience with a few novels (Germinal, Petals of Blood, Crime and Punishment, The Heart of the Matter come to mind as prime examples).
Most novels for me however are more transitory experiences. I enjoy them at the time and since the general sensation of pleasure does remain, I am glad to have read them. Some I might even re-read at some point. But I don’t continue to think deeply about them in terms of their message or theme for much longer than that immediate experience.
And then there are those that I cannot honestly recall ever having read. I only realise the fact when I open it again or find it at the back of the shelves. They’re not awful otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered keeping them. They’re just things I allowed to pass before my eyes in a sense, something that whiled away the time but never really engaged my brain beyond the superficial level.
I came across one of these yesterday while doing a bit of a clean up of the bookshelf and desperately hoping to find some gaps so I could fit in my new purchases. It was The Observations by Jane Harris. Instantly I recalled that I had planned to read this last year but never got around to it. I was just putting back on the shelf when a moment of doubt began creeping in. I read the synopsis on the back. It definitely sounded familiar. But then that might just have been because I’ve looked at it many many times in the year or so since it first came into the house (deciding each time that I wasn’t in the mood). I started flicking through the pages, skim reading a paragraph here and there. It didn’t take long before reality sunk in. I have indeed already read this.
But when and where was another puzzle. Until I started this blog I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. A quick search revealed that I was reading it on November 1 last year, finding it “a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. I must have finished it otherwise I wouldn’t still have in my possession but I can’t have rated it highly because I never wrote a full review. Clearly it didn’t make of an impact on me. In fact if someone asked me what it’s about I would struggle to say more than it’s about a maid, a mistress who makes very odd requests and the suspicious death of a previous servant. The rest is blank shall we say.
I know this isn’t an isolated example of a book that I’ve forgotten I ever read. I used to read lots of crime fiction and frequently took books home from the library only to realise half way through that the plot sounded rather familiar.
If my memory is this bad, I have no hope of emulating the reader who has used her Goodreads account to record every book she can remember reading, including those from her childhood. It’s taken her four years to get to 1,000 books. She clearly has a much better memory than I do – I think I would struggle to get even half way to that number. I certainly don’t remember everything I read as a child.
The article she wrote for The Guardian doesn’t say how she managed this extraordinary feat. The quickest route would be to look up the various category lists or author lists, scan them and add titles to your ‘read’ shelf. But she clearly went beyond that since she also says in her article that of the 1,000 she enjoyed only about 700. Which means that it wasn’t a case of recognising a cover and thinking ‘oh i read that one’ but actually recalling what her reaction was.
Just to put this into perspective. I have 200 books on my “Read” shelf at Goodreads which is only a small fraction of what I’ve read throughout my life. But knowing which books I’ve left off my list is tough. I know for example that I’ve read a lot of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine but looking at the titles although they are familiar I can’t be sure thats because I read them or have just seen them in book shops so often. Even when I know for sure I read a particular title, trying to recall my level of enjoyment is a further challenge particularly given Goodreads’ five point scoring system. I enjoyed Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and A Town Like Alice but would they both score a five or was one better than the other?. I have no idea. It’s enough of a problem trying to deal with the last 40 years of reading, going back into childhood would for me be nigh on impossible.
Am I a lone voice here with my memory deficiency? How much do you recall of what you read? Do you have the same issues with forgotten books??