ALAN HALSEY: Unconnected and Incomplete Thoughts On Reading and Remembering

If you’re reading this you are probably an addict reader.

If you’re an addict reader and you’ve lived long enough you must have started to wonder what reading has to do with remembering.

The best books are those you remember enough to want to re-read and then they seem like nothing you’ve ever read before. And after all a book – and more so a library – is itself an embodiment of memory which makes personal remembering redundant. So long as you can remember exactly which place – then lo! the words are there, they never went away. That’s why Socrates didn’t like writing. Lucky for him he never saw the internet, the last straw for anamnesis.

Re-reading certain books such as A la Recherche returns you to a place so familiar you feel you can only have dreamt it but that’s probably not why you can’t remember much of what was said there. Some of John Cowper Powys’s novels have a similar effect although it’s not so much a place as an aberrant discomfort. I’m assuming you’re not a Proust or Powys scholar, returning many times to reconsider every detail. The rest of us only read these books two or three times, probably many years apart. Writers hope it might be otherwise but writers’ hopes aren’t a reader’s business.

‘Escapist reading.’ ‘Escaping into books.’ You see how readers take the blame. It’s not as if there isn’t a question whether what they’re escaping isn’t worth escaping from.

Mostly all you need to remember when reading is some of what you’ve been told in the preceding pages of that particular book. I hear your objection and grant you remember more than this but what I said was ‘need’. You’re right there are territories beyond, some so remote that perhaps only incurables accidentally land there.

To find one of your own bookmarks still tucked into a book years later, or a previous owner’s, a marker of – boredom? despair? maybe only a casual but prolonged interruption? If, if it’s yours, you can remember that, and no more than that … perhaps it was a well-loved passage, once.

With many a book I remember where and when I read it, which usually has nothing to do with where I placed it in my imagination. (Often a place I’ve otherwise forgotten and can’t easily identify.) (Imagination, so distinct from remembering, yet they do merge at a point roughly 180° behind the reading eye.)

People talk about ‘extreme sports’ as if reading isn’t one of them. Remembering’s strictly another. The difficulty is that in addressing the familiar you state the obvious.

All I remember about first reading Gertrude Stein is sitting in the Lyons restaurant on Streatham High Street and the yobs across the table joking about the 17-year-old studious me in fact studying nothing, just wonderfully dumbstruck. On the other hand I can’t remember the place where I first read the short short story which hooked me on reading, that one of Hemingway’s beginning ‘We were in a garden at Mons.’ I’ve never been to Mons but I remember that garden as distinctly as the edition in which I found it, a mid-60s Penguin Modern Classic with a half-tone drawing of Mt Kilimanjaro on the cover. And the German soldier climbing over the wall. ‘We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him.’ It’s so often one word in a certain usage that you don’t forget.

Hemingway reinforced the notion that some writing is ‘bookish’, that it’s ‘only’ written ‘out of’ reading rather than ‘experience’, as if reading were not itself an experience. Which would be terrible if true. Isn’t An Anatomy of Melancholy the most bookish and the most ‘experienced’ of books?

‘What you write today you can only read tomorrow.’ But writing and remembering, that’s another question. ‘I wrote this without knowing I was –’ – repeating without remembering? Watch out for both but don’t confuse them, at least too often.

Reading and remembering both create tangents, sometimes similar, sometimes not. The tangents mesh but not, I think, with each other. They lie on different planes. Sometimes words, as if peculiarly charged, cross from one to the other, offering themselves up as new writing-stuff.

‘He’s a walking library.’ I do usually remember where to find this or that book and the passage I want but that doesn’t mean I have all the contents in my head like the character in Auto da Fé who thought he’d cracked ‘the book racket’, which I for one never have.

There isn’t a walking library alive you can read like a book unless you skip a few pages.

A memory without faults wouldn’t be worth the name. Nor is, now so common, an inaccurate index.

Phrases, sentences ‘remembered’ – more often in poetry than prose but usually ones my memory’s rewritten for better or worse. Is it mostly, if not only, reader-writers who do this?

But, again, I’m mainly thinking about everyday non-specialist reading, and what mind and eye are up to while we read a hundred pages of prose at one sitting. How we meet it, where it goes. The defining compression which poetry brings to language demands a different species of reading, perhaps a different area of memory, even different eye movements. An ability to sweep forward and back while attending to the written word-order – you can only properly read it when it’s in some degree already memorised, at least as a structure with its internal connections set to work. And then sounded and in that sense akin to the yet more specialised reading of music. Or of mathematical equations – are there mathematicians who sing them out loud while they read? Has anyone tried Whitehead and Russell as text for performance?

How much reading is parallel thinking only distantly related to the words on the page? Fine by me if that’s how and why you read but the best writing won’t let you.

It’s quite possible to read Finnegans Wake at average speed. I did it at the sixth attempt. It was a different book from the one I’d previously read slowly or aloud – as I remember.

Some perfectly good books it won’t do to re-read. You may have forgotten nearly everything about them but you can’t read them now as if for the first time and that’s what you want. Are some of these the same ones you feel lost and lonely when you finish reading?

There are books you read and like well enough to keep for a while but then you send them back where they came from. Shelf-space doesn’t always decide it. Maybe you think that whatever you remember about them suffices. But what a difference there is between readers and collectors, even if they’re sometimes one and the same person. Perhaps the passion for first editions is a yearning for unblemished memory.

‘The words are still there, they never went away’ – but you, you’ve been up to other things in the meantime and for all you know they have too.

What about Borges’ perhaps ironical remark that reading is ‘more resigned, more civil, more intellectual’ than writing? (Andrew Hurley’s translation.) The ‘more resigned’ teases. I understand the ‘more intellectual’ although I wouldn’t rely on it. I’m cautious too about the ‘more civil’, endearing as it seems. Borges who often enough warns against Platonism often also succumbs to its allure. But when writing I’m similarly tempted to think of ‘the reader’ as someone who may not be Funes the Memorious but has a better memory than mine. (There, you see, that’s exactly what I’ve just done.)

Reading as a search for coherence – but coherence asserts itself, crossing categories, it shows up in books found apparently at random in Oxfam or the last-day sale of any shop pincered out of business by Oxfam and Amazon. Sometimes I think those traces – perhaps mere tokens – have  been put there to test me but I don’t like to ask by whom. I never otherwise suspect there may be a God or that He has such a sense of humour.

Alan Halsey’s recent books are Even if only out of (Veer) & In White Writing (Xexoxial). He has recently finished editing the second volume of Bill Griffiths’ collected poems for publication by Reality Street in 2014. He co-directs the antichoir Juxtavoices with Martin Archer.



  • mike ruddick

    lovely! glad to see you’re still out there alan, still ferreting about in charity shops even! how clear you make everything seem…how seem you make everything clear?


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