I recently wrote about writing too much (as if such a thing were possible). After posting that I thought of how much the same can be said of reading. I like to believe that whatever I’ve read is stored in my brain somewhere, rather like my writing on all those external drives. I get some hopeful hints of this when a fragment of something read long ago suddenly reappears. It’s good to know it’s there somewhere. What brought this to mind is that a book I’m currently reading used a significant term. Overly confident as I only am when reading, I figured I’d remember where it occurred. A few days later I’d forgotten. “No problem,” I thought, “the index.” Indexes are never perfect and I’m always amazed by what strikes me as being so important failed to make the author’s cut. So it happened.
This particular book was compactly written, but even so, it was more than sixty pages ago. It took a few days of skimming, and finally going through line-by-line to find the word again. It was a capitalized word and I thought mere skimming would be able to pick it out. No such luck. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that since I’ve left academia I’ve pretty much stopped writing in books. I always did it in pencil, but still—there’s something about that pristine page so carefully typeset and laid out. Well, if I had all the time in the world I could re-read those first sixty pages again, but I don’t have time to read all the books I need to, so I grabbed my old Pentel and began marking the spots I wanted to remember.
When we age it’s recall that suffers. I tend to think the memories themselves are still there, sometimes distorted, sometimes altered, but present. Books, after all, can be reread. If I read something while commuting to Manhattan, there is a good likelihood that some of it was occluded by the worries of work lying ahead, coupled with the anxiety of catching the bus back home at the end of the day. Not to mention anything that might’ve been happening in real life—that place outside of work that you really care about. I’m glad for the commute reading; I regularly read over 100 books a year. You couldn’t take notes while on a New Jersey Transit bus, though. It’s not possible to read too much, but reading memory, it seems, is a sometimes a scarce resource.