Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reading, Memory and Review: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel pt. 1

I just started A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, a favourite author of mine after reading and listening to his 2007 Massey Lectures, The City of Words. Already there are so many things I find interesting, not sure where to start. Did you know that books were mostly read aloud until (not sure when and the book is not close at hand, but I think around 1000 CE)? This means that libraries were not quiet places of study, but noisy, bustling places of learning.

Manguel touches upon the power of books and writing to scare those in power, to scare them enough to censor, ban or even burn books. In Ray Bradbury's brilliant Fahrenheit 451 (which I'm going to go re-read now), people are left to memorize books after they are burned.

He then goes on to explore this phenomenon of people memorizing books, intertwined with ideas of re-reading for pleasure, recalling favourite passages and such. I found it challenging to recall even the author he had written about in the previous chapter, and I generally have an excellent memory. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in a movie store (bear with me). The friend never watches movies twice, while I often watch favourite movies over and over. I do the same with books: I've read some maybe 20 times. Most of these, though, are not difficult or complex works, they are enjoyable fiction, and often fantasy. The friend was surprised to have me compare movies to paintings or music, art that you would never consider experiencing only once if you enjoyed it. For me it's the same with books.

But books are a different art-form than movies, paintings or music. While I would never claim that they are passively enjoyed, they are generally less... engaging? than books. However, my memory of books is far less How often does my enjoyment stem from being able to lose myself in a book that I don't remember that well? I've noticed that often I can't tell you the names of the principle characters in any work of fiction I'm reading. I rarely notice chapter names. Since I've become aware of this I now actively try to remember these and other details, and I've noticed an improvement, albeit a small one.

And just to take this post as far away from medieval reading practices as possible... I don't remember phone numbers anymore now that they're stored in my cell phone. Or rather I remember a select few. Books replaced our memory of stories, now computers (and Google and Wikipedia in particular) have replaced our memory of nearly everything else.

The other night I wanted to watch a movie but didn't have enough time to start a new one that I would want to finish, so I started Casablanca, my favourite movie ever. It is beautiful, clever, romantic, hard-boiled, almost every adjective. I've seen it probably 10-15 times. Every scene is familiar, no line is a surprise, but I couldn't tell you the names of more than a couple of characters. Is is because we don't see the names, we only hear them?

I would say that I have a very good memory; at times it feels photographic or eidetic. That extends to sounds on occasion: I will imagine exactly what I heard and let the sounds replay until they are clear. If it's not that, then, is it the mind skipping details that it doesn't find compelling or necessary to a narrative? Am I reading for plot more than character?

And finally (and I think more interestingly), what does this imply about our ability to comprehend and assimilate anything non-fiction that we read? What does it imply about societal memory?

PS: more to say on this book later.