For at least a year or two I believed I hated Haruki Murakami. Before I went to Sierra Leone to work with a non-profit, I packed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because I had thoroughly enjoyed Norwegian Wood. Long story short, due to the Ebola outbreak we were forced to stay in the same place for a while. Under the summer heat and lack of electricity, I passed a lot of the time reading the book and grew overwhelmingly frustrated. I got tired of hearing the narrator’s voice, I was tired of all of these weird flashbacks, and, well, I don’t remember what else. All I remember is I didn’t like it, and from that point on I decided I was no longer a Murakami fan (a stance that has since changed after Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki).
I tell this anecdote because while there may have been some truth in what I didn’t like about Murakami at the time, the point is that the way we sometimes remember and talk about books are extremely similar to the way we talk about people, places — probably everything. This post is spurred by an article in The Atlantic, which I thought was not that profound but led me to this article in The New Yorker. The latter references this quote attributed to the poet Siegfried Sassoon:
For it is humanly certain that most of us remember very little of what we have read. To open almost any book a second time is to be reminded that we had forgotten well-nigh everything that the writer told us. Parting from the narrator and his narrative, we retain only a fading impression; and he, as it were, takes the book away from us and tucks it under his arm.
There’s great comfort in the limitations of our memory being “humanly certain,” that there is nothing wrong with us for not being able to remember the exact details of every movie or book we consume. And yet this is just the same as how we go about our daily lives: we experience, stow away particular snatches, and push forward. You may believe you recall all of the details of the time spent with your friends last night, but what you remember is different from what your friends remember. They might remember you looked a little bit more tired than usual, or, going into the night, two of your friends had a conversation that colored the entire evening in a way you can’t imagine — essentially, all of the details that go into the media we consume. The fact that our memory of real life is any better than our memory of books or movies might just be a difference in sensory input, not in some inherently greater significance of what is “real” and what is “fiction” — human memory is limited all the same. We all run through life picking up memories, leaving some behind (not entirely by choice of course), more or less tumbling towards the end in which, as one of the articles puts it, we forget everything in death.
The way I talked about Murakami is a lot like the way I’ve talked about some people. “Yeah I don’t like him, he’s just a bit too dark and drops too many cultural references…” And while at times it’s fine to generalize (after all it’s natural to alleviate stress on our limited minds) when I sit back and think about it, the judgment of a person after one interaction like that is quite absurd. Since my opinion of Murakami has changed, I’ve started to wonder if I didn’t like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because it was the only form of entertainment I had, not to mention it was read in a stuffy, hot apartment all day until it got too dark to read. I wonder if it was because of my own frustrations with the situation, not to mention the uncertainty. While my circumstances then were quite extreme, the general principles hold for some people as well, where I’ll sometimes come in with a preconceived dislike or like, and then later be thoroughly surprised at just how wrong I was, how much of my assessment was based on the situation.
In short, to say that consuming media is meaningless because we forget it all anyway is to say the same nihilistic thing about life — why do we spend all this money on trips and nights out when we forget most of it anyway? As The New Yorker article says, reading is of course a form of narcissism in that what we have to gain is a better understanding of ourselves. But at the same time, that narcissism is rooted in that bond between reader and writer, where there’s a relationship forged over not necessarily a common understanding of a phenomenon but a common understanding of the fact that it is important in some way. In that sense it might not even really be narcissism at all — art allows us to become someone else for a while and learn from that interaction. What we take away may be a better understanding of ourselves but it comes by virtue of a shared experience.
On a final note, The New Yorker article ends with this:
Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.
In my experience, writing has been the real act of conquest, reading the mere perception of the beast. Because writing is a more refined version of what the interpretation that goes on in our minds as we read, and because our minds are so finite the only way to really conquer the beast is to set it down in writing, expanding our limits. You can reread as much as you want, but rereading is just a form of reinterpreting and coming to an understanding, all of which is greatly enhanced by writing. So many times on this blog so far I’ve discovered something new about a book I’ve just finished by forcing myself to write about, to come face to face with the beast, fangs and all, and try to understand it. Those hours spent behind a dimly lit screen, hands paused over a keyboard, is the act of giving shape to both the beast and one’s understanding of it.