Reading Memory

I often think of reading as a form of daydreaming. The right kind of reading, of course. Not the reading you do for a purpose, or the reading you do with half your mind aware of your to do list or the next things you have to move on to. Reading as daydreaming is immersive. My mother used to hate it when I read this way as a child/grad student. I put my whole self into reading, concentrating on the flow of words on the page. I can block out all sound except what I want to hear and experience; motherly requests or reminders that dinner is ready not being on that list apparently. Reading in this manner isn’t sensory deprived, however. I am deeply aware of how I’m processing sensory information. Indeed, in a conversation I had a couple weekends ago, I mentioned that I can remember where I was when I read certain books. I think this surprised my friend. It’s more than recollecting place and time. I can vividly bring the whole image to mind; the way things looked, the light, the quality of the atmosphere, how air felt on my skin, how things tasted.

I remember reading Ian McEwan’s Saturday in one large gulp in my brother’s bedroom on a Saturday afternoon in late spring. The light from the windows came in at a warm, honey slant, a pleasant contrast to the wintery day in McEwan’s text. I felt the weight of his words in my body. I remember reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, the Norton edition, at work answering phones at the Meadows Foundation on a rainy day in June of 2006–it was that really bizarre, wet spring. It poured outside as I sat in the foyer of this grand, dark wood paneled replica Victorian mansion. The phone rang rarely. I drank too strong coffee and immersed myself in Margaret’s world, feeling her emotional turmoil. I gasped aloud when she was struck during the strike, and I know I blushed for her when Margaret realized that she had inadvertently revealed more of herself and her feelings than even she knew. I perhaps related overly much with Margaret’s desire to be unreadable, a quality of being I’m happily and awkwardly learning to let go of. I remember rereading Wives and Daughters after my comprehensive exams, sitting on my mother’s front porch, listening to Django Rheinhardt and drinking a beer, luxuriating in Gaskell’s elegiac prose and the golden, slow sunset and slight breeze.

My most tangible memories are not linked to reading. I had a sudden and complete craving for Charlie’s Belgian waffles with fresh cream and strawberries this morning; Charlie’s is a restaurant in Seattle where I ate two consecutive breakfasts with Dan and Walter in March of 2003, eleven years ago in a few weeks. I could actually remember how it tasted, and how much fun it was to decide that we were having that breakfast again. I know I’ll remember how exhilarated I felt in those last three miles of the half marathon I ran on Sunday, frozen beyond belief, with rain dripping off my hat. I felt so at peace with the world and so insanely satisfied that even remembering it now brings tears to my eyes. I have sudden bursts of certainty about people or situations that mark moments for me. Yet, I’m not one for remembering or dwelling on big events. I prefer the small details, the finer aspects of the senses. Large emotions I find suspect or perhaps misleading, decidedly overwhelming. I’m interested in the layers underneath, the quieter aspects that fuel memory. Reading, for me at least, is about those finer grained parts of the senses. The large emotions are translated into prose with weight, heft, and shape. I can roll them in my mouth, taste them, hear them in my mind. I read aloud the parts I love again and again. (I think it’s why some of my students seem to understand a passage better when I read it aloud in class, but I’m not sure of this.) I remember where I am when I read something that affects me because it’s how I know what I’m feeling.

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