Monday, April 09, 2007

LIST: Books I've Read (but May as Well Not Have, Because I've Forgotten Every Damned Thing about Them)

So, get this. Our refrigerator died on Friday, but lo! Our new refrigerator arose on Monday! Coincidence? Divine intercession? Blasphemy? All three? You be the judge!

Anyway. I was chatting with my friend K8T about books, and she asked me if I've ever read The Englishman's Boy, which she's currently reading. I told her I have, but it was several years ago and I couldn't remember much. She described the plot to me, which lead to the following exchange:
"So that's up to where I'm at."
"Wow. That sounds like a really good book."
"Is any of it coming back to you?"
"Not a bit."
I'm not exaggerating. I literally remember nothing of this book. By virtue of the title, I'm able to extrapolate something about a boy, and I suspect a gentleman of the English persuasion may be involved, but that's about it. Oh, and based on the cover design, something about cowboys.

So I started wondering how many other novels I've read whose plots and characters have completely, and no doubt permanently, escaped me. It turns out, after a quick scan of my shelves, quite a few!

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
This is where titles are helpful. I may not remember anything about this book, but I can still bask in that wintry, discontented vibe when I look at it.

The Long Valley by John Steinbeck
Don't get the impression that I can't remember anything by Steinbeck. I have many chunks of East of Eden and Travels with Charley committed to memory. But The Long Valley? I dunno, dude. Has anyone other than me even read this? Care to refresh my memory?

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
I'm not even one hundred percent sure I read this book. I think I did, because I had to for school. But maybe I didn't. I don't know what to believe any more, man.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
See above.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
I like a lot of Hemingway a lot. This book? Not so much.

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
You know how it is when you read a couple of great books by a writer and then you go on a bender and read everything else you can get your hands on, including the lesser books? And then you may as well not have bothered because later you can only remember the first two books anyway? Yeah.

Put out More Flags and Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh
See above.

The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster
Er. See above.

The Ghost Writer, Letting Go, Zuckerman Unbound, Deception, Our Gang, and Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
Philip Roth, it seems, is incapable of writing a single memorable word. Wait, that's not quite true. I can absolutely recall the scene in Portnoy's Complaint when the main character describes a moment in his adolescence when he ejaculates into his own eye (by accident, HE CLAIMS) while masturbating. It's easy to see how that scene could stick (so to speak).

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
This is a rarity. Generally, Vonnegut creates images that are permanently branded onto, uh, whatever part of my brain remembers these sorts of things. But hey, everyone's entitled to an off day, right?

The Fourth Hand by John Irving
For all I know, this story is about a group of eccentric bridge players. Tell you the truth, knowing Irving, I wouldn't even find it that surprising.

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

Man. And that's just a sampling from books I still have lying around the house. I couldn't even begin to speculate on how many have been lost to the ages because I purged them or returned them to the library. Lost. All lost. And don't even try to calculate how many lost reading hours this amounts to. (Answer: A lot.)

Question is: I've still got all these books. Do I re-read them, assuming that, if I haven't purged them, there must be SOMETHING I liked enough to want to keep them around? Or do I assume that, if I can't remember a blamed thing about them, they obviously suck -- or at the very least are tragically mediocre -- and should be tossed to make room for more memorable books?


Jess said...

Now that you mention The Fourth Hand, I KNOW I read it but all I really remember is something about someone losing a hand and then receiving a donor hand...which I would find hard to believe if it weren't Irving. But why fourth? That, as well as the rest of the plot, as escaped me.

Anonymous said...

I recently catalogued my library so the feeling of "I know I've read this book, but goddamn if I can remember it, or even, you know, owning it" is very, very familiar to me.

Is it because the books weren't memorable, or because of all the beer and the age and the memory loss, or a little of everything?

Anonymous said...

I have read The Fourth Hand, and fairly recently, so I still remember it, and I can tell you all with great confidence: the reason you don't remember it is that it sucks.

The newest one (Until I Find You) was good, though!

Karen said...

Answer: The latter. There are too many other books out there to be read. If, someday, you find a particular reason to read one of them, go for it. Otherwise? Nah.

Wendy said...

I can totally relate...the worst is when I go out and actually purchase a book, come home, open it, read 20 pages and think "Wait a minute, I've read this before." I hate that. This problem seems to have worsened as the years float by. I have a list of books I've read over the last 10 years or so, and when I scan down it I can't remember A LOT of them. In fact, had I not written them down, I'd swear I'd never read them at all. *sigh*

Unknown said...

Ah yes, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I read it also, and all I remember are the following things:

1.) A moocow goes down a road.
2.) Apparently there was a scene where Joyce as a teenager has his first wank. I totally missed this and had NO idea what they were talking about. Everyone in class laughed at me.
3.) It was a valentine to himself.

These three things have conspired to make me hate James Joyce, and I don't care how many people tell me Ulysses is the best book ever, I'm not reading it. I refuse to give James Joyce the satisfaction, that bastard! Hmph.

MsMolly said...

I'm like this with Possession. I've read it. I know I've read it. But I couldn't tell you anything about it for the life of me. And it always kind of mystifies me when it shows up on a list of someone's favorite books of all time.

I do, on the other hand, have an abiding love for Bleak House and all of its weirdness. I mean, how can you not love a book where a character dies from "spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died"? I'd also highly recommend the Masterpiece Theater miniseries with Gillian Anderson. It departs from the book sometimes, but it's still awesome.

Molly said...

My grandfather always said it was a blessing to not remember a book because you could get all of the joy of reading it again. He would go through his small branch library and read everything in the biography section (in order) and then start again at the beginning.

spacepotatoes said...

I read The Fourth Hand a few years ago, and I do still remember it but I wouldn't count it as a big loss if I didn't. It's Irving, so even when it's not up to par, it's still good. But he's definitely done better.

And now that I think about it, I don't get why the "fourth" either...

pussreboots said...

I'd say get rid of them. You could join BookCrossing and release them via the site. That way you might see how your books travel from reader to reader. Or you can find readers who want to read them and send the books on to them.

RandomRanter said...

I think generally, it seems safe to safe it didn't really grab you and that's why you don't remember. So you could try re-reading, and sometimes about a chapter or so in it starts to come back. Sometimes not.
But what's really bad is I read a book last week and can not recall what it is about. I remember that I was a bit annoyed with it, but the plot, got nothing. I think there was a girl...

Sandy D. said...

What's worse for me is when I remember absolutely *loving* a book when I see the title. You'd think I would remember why I thought it was so wonderful, but no, that is unfortunately not always the case.

I started keeping a 'mini review' - a paragraph or two at most on the books I've read on an online forum, and looking back over the last few years, there are a couple that I raved about that I can remember nothing of substance about. WTF?

Latest title in this category: The Best Thing I Ever Tasted,by Sallie Tisdale. It's good, but I can't remember WHY, or anything specific about it. And since I thought it was great, I immediately loaned it to a friend, so I can't even look and see if anything jogs my memory.

Anonymous said...

I read Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow a few months ago, and I fell absolutely in heat over the book. Adored it so much that I thought EVERYTHING he wrote was surely gold. So I borrowed World's Fair from the library, and damned if I can even remember whether or not I got past the first few pages or not. But now I can't remember Ragtime that well, either, so I get to borrow that from the library soon.

I asked my library once if they'd ever consider having a database where a borrower could check on whether or not they'd ever checked out a book. They laughed at me before hanging up. And now I think I might have told you that already, so my posts are starting to go the way of books that I can't remember reading. Arrrrgh.

Anonymous said...

Here is another good blog post on the same subject:

Doppelsis said...

Having just finished The Fourth Hand a couple of books ago - you're not missing much by not remembering it - HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT!!!!!

Currently reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith which is very good and yes there is an actual tree. A must lend to Doppelganger when we visit again and have a book exchange.

Andi said...

Oddly enough, the only Roth that's "stuck" for me is his memoir, Patrimony. It seems I like his real life more than his fiction.

Veronica said...

Oh! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is my absolute favorite! You must, must read it and post what you think. (Although sometimes I think it's more phenomenal as a first-read when you're'll have to test my theory on that.)

JAM said...

My first thought was, "Oh, The Fourth Hand! That was about... um... erm... well... holy crap, what was that? [runs away]"

And Joyce, ugh. I took a whole class in college on nothing BUT Joyce, and after the aneurysm brought on by the abomination that is Finnegan's Wake (and by "horrible abomination" I mean, of course, "glorious, unsurpassed masterpiece of literature" or whatever will not expose me for the plebe that I am) I think I've blocked it all out.

Bybee said...

I blogged about this last fall. Going back over my reading journal, I was shocked to see how much I'd read and couldn't recall at all. Not a word.