Recalling Reading

The Conservatory by Frances Jones Bannerman
The Conservatory by Frances Jones Bannerman

I’d promised myself three completely unstressed days of reading this weekend and so far that is precisely what I’ve achieved.  I’m halfway through both Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder and Lindsey Davis’s The Ides of April and I think I’m enjoying both of them.  The caveat to that is that I’m finding the Rubenfeld completely unmemorable.  Each time I come back to it I have to really work at remembering what has happened and who some of the more minor characters are.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to read it in tandem with another book, but I need it for a reading group meeting on Wednesday and I don’t like to finish the selection until the day before at the very earliest, so I’ve been rationing myself.

It is interesting that some books are so memorable that whole passages are imprinted in one’s mind, whereas even the most important features of others slip through the little grey cells like so much water.  Although I’m basically a plot person, I suspect that in this respect the action has very little to do with what is recalled and that the most important factor is the author’s use of language.  I can still quote entire paragraphs from Alan Paton’s superb novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, even though it is decades since I read it.

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear.  Let him not love the earth too deeply.  Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire.  Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley.  For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.

Carefully honed passages such as this sing their way not simply into our minds, but into our hearts as well.  The love felt by Paton and by his main character for their home country of South Africa is palpable both in the individual words and in the way in which those words are brought together into what amounts to a prayer with all the linguistic and quasi-musical features we would associate with such a text.

Or, we might remember books and passages from books because in some way they chime with where we are (figuratively if not literally) at the moment when we read them.  Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow is one I recall in great detail because it was the book that brought me the realisation that I was regaining my mental as well as physical health after a long period of illness.  In this novel a group of scientists are trying to come to an understanding of a new culture and, for me more importantly, the way in which its language works.  One of the group thinks that she has identified the conditions under which a particular verb form is used only to have the more senior linguist point out that the rule she is suggesting specifies a set of circumstances that are necessary, but on their own, not sufficient to account for her observations.  The notion that linguistically something is necessary but not sufficient may sound supremely unexciting to you but I can assure you that for me it was like a light coming on at the end of a very long and very dark tunnel.  I can still remember exactly where I was when the revelation that I was not only following their discussion but had come to the same conclusions before they did hit me.  It was the moment I knew I was on the road to recovery.

So, I must assume that there is nothing in the language of the Rubenfeld, nor in the substance of the discussion, that is exciting me.  I’m sure this is just a mismatch and that other people will have thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it far more memorable.  I suspect that these acts of recall are very personal phenomena.  Is anyone going to tell me that I’m wrong about The Interpretation of Murder?  Or will you share your own memorable or unmemorable texts?  I would love to know what books or specific passages from books have lodged in other people’s minds.


16 thoughts on “Recalling Reading

  1. I did enjoy the Rubenfeld but didn’t find it particularly memorable, but then I notoriously forget books as soon as I’ve read them. (That’s why I review – an aide memoir). But characters tend to stay with me more than particular passages and become a permanent feature of my fictional landscape – Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennett, etc. More recent additions are Masterji from Aravind Adiga’s wonderful Last Man in Tower, Anne Hathaway from Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare and, a very recent one so I’ll need to wait a while to see if he stays with me forever, Paul Krovik from Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land. Each of them has made me feel they’ve added a little to my understanding of what makes us human.

    1. This just emphasises something else I was thinking about and will post on later, namely, the varying importance people give to characters in fiction. I was at a readers’ day yesterday attended by four authors and it was clear that there was an even split between those who centred their books around character and those who were more concerned with plot. The writer I was least sympathetic towards was the one who was most character centred. I have tried to think about any character who affects me in the way you have described and can only come up with Arthur Weasley, which given that he is from the world of fantasy isn’t really a prime example.😉

      1. Oh I see no reason to exclude Arthur – a great character! And if he’s allowed in, then I can squeeze in Gandalf, who shares his wisdom with me on a regular basis 😉

        I think I’m more interested in plot when reading crime (though I still like the characters to be well rounded and believable) but in literary fiction it’s character first for me, followed by a sense of place/time and then plot. When an author achieves all three, I’m in literary heaven.

  2. I had a negative experience of “The Sparrow.” It made me feel totally disgusted and jaded with life, not, I have a feeling, the experience it was intended to have. It aimed at instilling a wisdom experience, but I couldn’t get that from it. If you got something more from it, then I’m genuinely happy for you: you’ve realized the author’s intent.

    1. It is not the easiest of books to read if you’re looking for the best in human nature, I’ll give you that. Foe me it was simply the right book at the right moment and for that I will be forever grateful.

  3. Ah, I have the novel to read, and hope it will sit better with me… Well, I do think reading is a lot about chance and circumstance. Not the great books, not the ones that are destined to make a difference for us – but the rest, that great ocean of okay to good enough books, they affect us differently depending on where we are in our lives, what mood we’re in, what we need to hear at that time. I find that the speed of the sentences is a huge deal with me. Sentences that read too fast or too slow can have a disproportionate effect on my pleasure!

    1. For me it’s to do with the music in a sentence. I used to say to my students that once they had the meaning right then they had to get the music in place. Some of them understood me. The rest just thought it was even more evidence I was mad!

  4. There are many books I’ve read that have fallen out of my memory almost as soon as I finish reading them – one reason for writing about them before they fade away. You mention Cry, the Beloved Country. Now I know that this book was on a reading list for school – one of those lists of suggestions for reading in the holidays, but I never read it. Looking at it today on amazon where you can see inside the book, I can see that I missed a treasure.

    I agree with Litlove it’s a matter of chance and mood with me first of all whether I actually like a book and secondly how long I remember it. A book like One Fine Day by Molly Panter-Downes is very memorable because of the style of writing, the settings and the characters. Crime fiction is different I want to believe in the plot and the characters should be sufficiently rounded – but I rarely remember who did it!!!

    1. I had a terrible experience with Panter – Downes around twenty years ago and so I’ve never tried to read her again. Should I look her out, do you think?

        1. I’m afraid it was ‘One Fine Day’. It was chosen for a book group and I just couldn’t get on with it. Anything else you might recommend?

  5. Too bad you and the book are a mismatch. But these things happen, yes? Unforgettable scenes that flit to mind are Atticus Finch facing down the rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird. The sharks eating Santiago’s marlin in Old Man and the Sea. Septimus killing himself in Mrs. Dalloway.

    1. ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is another book that was ruined for me by being set as an exam text. Even though I studied it for the best part of a year I can’t remember a thing about it. I’m sure I ought to read it again, but I don’t think I have the will power.

  6. I do remember whole paragraphs from To Kill A Mockingbird. “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.” is one of my favorites and “Reverend Sykes voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your Father’s passin’.” is probably my favorite part of almost any book I’ve ever read. I remember very tiny details about that book, but I am having trouble remembering much about some of the books I’ve read in the past month.

    1. Yes, I do know that feeling about books read in the past month – the past week even! I have a terrible confession to make – I have never read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ Is it too late for me to be redeemed, do you think?

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