Monday, September 19, 2011

Reading To Remember, or One More Way Books Are Awesome

Last spring, when I was "stuck" in Berlin, thanks to an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano, I was reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. Now, whenever my eye catches that book where it sits on my shelf, thoughts of that trip immediately come to mind.

But it's not just travel for which this "book/memory association" works. For instance, whenever I happen to glance at Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, I'm reminded of Marquette's surprise run to the Final Four in 2003. The memory of reading that fantastic book and that fantastic few weeks of basketball are permanently intertwined.

Indeed, what I realized is that my bookshelf has become a virtual travelogue / diary / database of memories. Of course, memory is associative, so it makes sense that this would be the case. I just never really consciously considered it before.* It certainly doesn't work for every book (I'm not some sort of literary Rain Man. Sadly. 'cause that'd be awesome!), but when I look at many of the hundreds of books on my shelves, I know what I was doing, where I was reading, what was happening in my life at that time. It's kind of awesome. Actually, it's really awesome! 

And here's what I also realized: I love technology and gadgets and such, and yet I still haven't bought an e-reader. The main reason I haven't is not because I'm opposed to reading electronically (I'm not), or because I like the "feel" of physical books (I do), or that I like collecting my books (I really do.) No, the main reason is that I'd lose this "book memory" phenomenon that only comes from glancing through physical books ensconced in their permanent home on my shelf. That, I'm not willing to give up.

So I'm sure this "book memory phenomenon" isn't unique to me. How does it work for you? Do you ever spend an afternoon just staring at your shelf and reminiscing?

*The funny thing is, this whole idea — or at least the reason it crystallized into enough of a coherent idea to write a post about it — came as I was watching the movie Limitless this weekend. If I could have one Super Power, it'd be to remember and connect any memory anytime I wanted. C'mon, that would be cool, right?


  1. I took my kindle on honeymoon and I still strongly associate the books I read with it. I think for me, it's the books themselves rather than their physical appearances?

    I agree that books link deeply with memory though.

  2. This is a pretty well documented phenomenon. I was one of the testers of Kindle DX in grad school, and everyone in the class reported that we had a harder time remembering information in the same way. I looked up some studies and the tactile experience of reading really does help imprint memories into the mind.

    In my case, I will never forget reading The Tightwad's Gazette for some reason. It was a rainy weekend afternoon and all my roommates were gone, leaving me in the apartment alone (a very rare situation!). I had a cup of tea and was sitting by an open window, listening to the rain and reading about ways to save money (much needed, as I was living on a stipend in NYC). I don't think I would have had the same reaction while reading an e-book version of that title, or any title.

    Great thought-provoking post!

  3. I was given a Nook recently(as a celebration of my first publication of an e-book)and while it's interesting to own,I won't be giving up my print books any time soon.

    Books do hold tangible memories,which is why they'll always be around one way or another. Many of the copies I have on my shelves stay there due to replacing them being much too difficult.

  4. I own a nook, but can completely relate with your memory connection - I don't really feel that as much with my nook as my physical print books.

  5. YES. It would be so cool. I almost cried with desire for that little clear pill when I was watching the movie. Just no side effects...

    I love this post. I often say in my posts that it's not just reading, it's the *experience* of reading. Which includes all your senses, and where you are both physically and in life in general.

    PS. I don't have an ereader for the same reason, but also because I'm a bibliophile. :)

  6. Oh man, I absolutely feel the same way! I love this about books. I have great memories of reading War and Peace at my Grandma's house over New Years, and reading Gone With the Wind when I was redoing my room in 9th grade ... haha ... I love the way I associate memories with books. It makes the reading experience that much better.

  7. This is a very good point to raise especially when trying to 'argue' about reading physical copies vs ereaders! Haha. I have nothing against e-readers of course as I think they're very convenient and are perfect for some people. But for that same reason you stated - remembering memories and events in our life - that's also one of my reasons for sticking with actual physical books. What would we do without them.

  8. The other somewhat related reason I've been avoiding the ereader thing is that I have a very visual memory, and I bet a lot of you do, too. For instance, when I'm wanting to go back to a passage in a book, I will often remember that it was in the top quarter of a right hand page about a third of the way through. I'm certain my memory works this way because of my physical manipulation of the space, and I'm equally certain it won't work with a reader. Brains are funny things.

  9. The best memories I have from my youth is of me sitting and reading a book by Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. I remember how those books felt between my hands, the texture of them, the smell and where I was each time I read them. One of my favourites - 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' was one I read all the time and I remember the year it fell apart on me down the coast; it was the same year I fell sleep with it still open to it halfway through; and Mum tried to take it off me. I muttered that I was reading it; and Dad chuckled saying: "yeah, through your eyelids!"
    These are the kids of memories e-readers don't allow for us to have. I have advised my family never to buy me an e-reader as I have no interest in them; also being an Epileptic, they're not good for us. So, if they want to buy me a book - and yet don't know what to get me - my relatives usually hand over a book voucher and let me loose in a bookstore! :)
    To answer your question about the bookshelves of books I have and if I love to remember where I read them; yeah, I do that sometimes. I remember where I was when I read 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' and 'War of the Worlds' and the day where it was too hot to do anything but read out in my car port and so spent four hours doing just that with four books I was reading with a bottle of Cranberry Juice, my cordless phone, a deck chair and my budgie... it was a great day to chill out with some nice breezes and read.

  10. I totally do the same thing! And the funny thing is, those memories will just hit out of the blue. I've seen, for example, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris a million times, but only every once in a while am I transported back to the day I read it in my car on my lunch break and nearly choked on my food I was laughing so hard. (That was the last time I read David Sedaris while eating!)

    I don't have many strong memories associated with books I've read on my Nook, but I also haven't read it many places other than my house.

  11. I wish I had a memory associated with my books, but my memory is so bad at the best of times I don't associate the books with anything.

    actually, one exception. I was once reading Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson (I think thats what its called, its a collection of columns he wrote about living in America).

    I was reading it in the emergency department at the hospital because a relative had been sent in and we spent a lot of time waiting around. I read to keep my mind occupied. Problem is, it was so hilarious, i was laughing hysterically in the waiting room and getting lots of filthy looks. But I couldn't help it! Every time I read that book, thats the memory I think of.

  12. I definitely have memory associations with some of my books. Whether it be giggling out loud on the London underground while people look at me like I'm crazy, or travelling around Europe sleeping in the back of a Volvo, or even curled up in my childhood bunk bed engrossed in my favourite book, it's hard not to be transported back in time when you see certain books.

  13. You know, I have not consciously considered this either, but quickly find myself relating to it. The novel that leapt out for me on reading your post, possibly because of a similar travelling situation, was that Madame Bovary always reminds me of moving to London (from Austrlia) 13 years ago, I was applying for work and all of that sort of thing, and Madame Bovary swept me away and seemed to prevent too much home sickness etc. As to your other point about the physical book, I could not agree more, and while I have thought about buying a Kindle, I am not yet ready to say goodbye to my collection of the real thing, probably for exactly the same reasons as you - the memories associated with reading particular books. Fascinating post, thanks.

  14. Love the idea of books as travelogue or even just memory anchors in general. There are books I can hardly remember the plot lines of but can remember exactly where I lived or where I was when I read them. Nice way to reconsider the overflowing bookshelf.

  15. I read Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler when I was about 14 and just solidifying my thoughts about god. To this day it remains one of the most important books in my life and fills me with a sense of wholeness in a way that other books don't. (I'm Unitarian Universalist by the way, and don't necessarily mean "guy in the sky" kind of god.)

  16. I have a post drafted that is similar to this idea... I hope no one thinks I'm copying you when I post it lol!! I think it's different enough though. I actually do find though, that I can relate ebooks to memories (though of course not from just looking at it). But I read The Postmistress on my nook while vacationing in Chicago, Before I Fall on my nook while traveling for work in north Carolina, etc and I have very specific memories of that to the point that if I see the actual book, I still connect that memory as though it was the physical book I read and not the digital one!

  17. I didn't really think that this would happen, but it turns out that I actually do maintain some specific memory-glitches after reading eBooks. The sight of the name or a picture of the cover... heck, even just a glance in the direction of my Sony! These all actually do call to mind the book and the situation I was in when I read it.

    More astounding is the smell association - I sniffed my leather Reader cover a while back and was surprised to discover that a scene from a book I'd recently read on it popped to mind immediately. Quite bizarre, to say the least...

  18. @Sam - I'd say it's an either/or thing - the physical book or a memory connected to what the book is about. But you can't just stumble across a Kindle book as you're getting dressed in the morning - usually.

    @thejoyofbooking - Very interesting - thanks for sharing that. Glad to hear there's actual evidence for this phenomenon. And it's amazing how deep the memories are when they're intermingled with a reading experiences - sight, taste, smell and even the weather!

    @lady t - Me too - even if I do wind up getting a Nook (and I'm sure I will soon), it'll be more for magazines, essays, and "brain candy" books that I can be sure won't hold memory or emotional connections.

    @Jennie - Glad to hear another e-book owner agreeing. Do you miss the connection to your print books? ;)

    @Steph - That was a surprisingly good movie - with a GREAT ending. Definitely not the easy or high road there. And I thin the "experience of reading" is a good way to put it - that's such a more all-encompassing way to think about what happens when we read.

    @IngridLola - It sure does, and I love your two examples. My memory of War and Peace will be late summer of 2011 as the air's just getting crisp and the leaves are starting to change... ;)

  19. @Jillian - Yeah, the idea of associating memories with reading isn't something you can really explain to someone who doesn't get it, or isn't into books as much as this community is. If you're just reading to pass the time and reading isn't a way of life, per se, you surely won't have nearly the same emotional attachment to books as we total bibliophiles do.

    @Sara C - That is an excellent point! I can't tell you how many times I've read something, read something else later in the same book that connected, and then had this vision of where the previous part appeared on the page, and then could find it easily. Amazon's Search Inside and Google Books have made this "skill" less important 'cause you can search for keywords in practically any book, but you're definitely right that most memory works by understand where something fell in space. And you're also right that it'd be a bit harder with an e-reader. Really glad you brought this up!

    @Mozette - I also vividly remember reading Charlie and The Chocolate Factory as a kid. It's crazy when I visit my parents' house and see some of the books I read as a kid, I still remember where I sat in our old houses as I read them. And it's funny how many of our reading memories involve weather - hot, rainy, etc.

    @Emily - They do hit out of the blue for me sometimes, too - but it's easy to "force" them back by simply looking at the spine of the book on my shelf. And good tip on how to read Sedaris. ;)

    @Becky - That's a perfect example - despite the social faux pas. ;)

    @Rachel - Those are all great examples - glad you agree with the associative book/memory phenomenon!

  20. @Mel - Some of my strongest book-memory associations also have to do with moving. I wonder why that is - the home sickness aspect may be part of it. Interesting. And, yeah, the more I think about it, the associative memory thing really is the reason why I haven't pulled the trigger on an e-reader yet. Again, it's just something non-bibliophiles wouldn't understand.

    @bookspersonally - That's funny - me too (can't remember plot, but can remember exactly where I was). Yeah, I think it makes you look at your bookshelves in a whole new light!

    @Amy - Wow - you were solidifying your thoughts about god at age 14. You were waaaay more advanced than me about life's big questions at that age! ;) I'll have to check out that book if it had such a profound impact on you.

    @Jenny - Love it when that happens - the shared ideas in the ether phenomenon. And I hope you enjoyed your vacation in our fair city (Chicago). And I would grant - though I'd have no firsthand knowledge - that it's certainly possible to associate e-books with memories. But at that point you have to consciously think of the book instead of accidentally wandering across it while you're putting your pants on in the morning, or something.

    @Biblibio - The smell association is a little bizarre - but not that surprising either, really. Smell is supposed to be our strongest memory-inducing sense, isn't it - think cologne or perfume of a past love interest. Anyway, I am heartened to learn that books read on e-readers can have the same associative memory phenomenon. I'll have to test this theory for myself...eventually.

  21. Ah yes I have a very strong sense of memory tied to my books. Can tell you what happened exactly while I was reading each one.

  22. Greg, my folks kept my books in a tea chest and - only in recent years - opened it to allow me access to them because I asked for them. So, I have most of my children's books from way back when I was reading in my childhood right at my fingertips on my bookshelves.
    And just looking at the covers brings back the memories of when I read them - at what age. For example: 'Stephen's Tree' by Libby Hathorn. This book is one I adore as it's written in English on one page and Spanish on the other and they have the same story about a young boy and his tree he fell in love with; but it was sold by accident at his father's nursery. I have the first edition of this book; and am pleased to say it's in excellent condition, but you can't find it anywhere now in hardcover.

  23. For some people smell does this. The smell of apple pie transports them to grandma's kitchen, etc.

    For me it's music. I can still remember Kasey Kasem's voice introducing Earth Wind and Fire's "September". I still viscerally feel that day in the early 80's when I first heard that song even though I was a little kid.

    Your post made me realize books do the same thing for me to some extent. The book that came to mind when I read your post was "The Enormous Egg" by Oliver Butterworth. I can still close my eyes and see me, Sebastian the 4th grader, reading that book on my bunk bed.

    Thanks for this!

  24. I was just thinking about this today. I love reading books on e-readers because of their portability and convenience. But I am still an avid collector of books; I buy the ones I know I'll want to read (and lend) over and over again. Nowadays, it seems like the e-reader is for reading and books are for remembering.