Essay Work Forgetfulness

I will never be able to recall a fraction of all this tomorrow, or a year hence.Yet such perceptions are very much part of the pleasure of being here in the present as I write and without them life would be poor indeed.Rather than submitting ourselves to a stream of information, in thrall to each precarious moment of a single reading, we can gradually come to possess, indeed to memorize, the work outside time.

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Knowledge, wisdom even, lies in depth, not extension.

The book, at once complex and endlessly available for revisits, allows the mind to achieve an act of prodigious control.

If, that is, on Flaubert’s recommendation, my half dozen books are still yielding new depths, why should I look elsewhere? That would imply that I had “possessed” those impressions or wanted to possess them.

The underlying implication is that life has less worth, less , if it just, as it were, slips by.

We do not possess the past, even that of a few moments ago, and this is hardly a cause for regret, since to do so would severely obstruct our experience of the present.

Does this throw any light on the business of reading?In short, our betters will tell us from their experience which books we should be reading—rereading, that is—since our first reading is hardly reading at all.Once the canon is established, then, it is unlikely to change, since who has time to check out the stuff that didn’t make it? Does the whole posture, both Nabokov’s and that of critical orthodoxy, bear any relation to the reality of our reading habits, particularly in a contemporary environment that offers us more and more books and less and less time to read them? Why does he describe our inability to recall the sense impressions of a few seconds before as “forgetting”?Needless to say it’s also an approach that consoles professors for having to reread the same texts year in year out.(Indeed, if I frequently quote from Lawrence and Joyce and Beckett and Woolf in this space, it is because these are authors whose works I regularly teach and have reread more times than I care to think.) And of course it is precisely the kind of text that is wilfully complex and difficult——that allows the professor, who has read it ten times, to stay safely ahead of his bewildered students.But why should that diminish the pleasure I once experienced?Why should I not rejoice that I am enjoying a new book today, rather than worry what the verdict of some future rereading might be?Unfortunately, dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is counterintuitive; i.e., often the right thing to do is exactly opposite that which seems like the right thing to the Dutch writer Douwe Draaisma, I am told almost at once that our immediate visual memories “can hold on to stimuli for no more than a fraction of a second.” This fact—our inevitable forgetting, or simply barely registering most of the visual input we receive—is acknowledged with some regret since we are generally encouraged, Draaisma reflects, “to imagine memory as the ability to preserve something, preferably everything, wholly intact.” The same day, I ran across a quotation from Vladimir Nabokov on the Internet: “Curiously enough,” the author of tells us, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Intrigued by this paradox, I checked out the essay it came from.The physical effort of moving the eyes back and forth remains exactly the same on every reading of a book, nor have I ever found it particularly laborious.What is different on a second and subsequent readings is our growing capacity for retention, for putting things in relation to one another.


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