Those of us who love novels have read hundreds or thousands of them during our lifetimes. Why do we vividly remember the content of some of those books while the vast majority become a sort of blur?
(Brief interlude: See the end of this post for a link to a great podcast on what makes a novel a classic novel. Hosted by Rebecca Budd, with guests Shehanne Moore and me!)
Of course, part of the reason we strongly recall the content of a relatively small percentage of books is that there’s only so much room in our brains. But there are other remembrance or forgetfulness factors to contemplate.
Obviously, novels that are our personal favorites have the potential to stick around in our brains. For me, those books include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, among others. But if we like a novel without it being one of our very favorites, the book’s details can fade as recently read titles fill our minds — and as months, years, or decades pass. Yes, when it comes to remembering, it helps to have read something not very long ago.
The best novels ever written, even if not among our personal top 10, can also be memorable — as are, say, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (subject of a terrific current “readalong” led by blogger Liz Humphreys of Scotland along with blogger Elisabeth van der Meer of Finland and the aforementioned podcaster/blogger Rebecca Budd of Canada); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet I read each of those three masterpieces long enough ago to have forgotten much of their content.
It almost goes without saying that rereading a novel keeps it fresh in our memory banks. My reading the three above-named classics just once apiece surely has helped lead to not having clear recollections of their stories and characters. In contrast, I’ve returned to Jane Eyre and The Grapes of Wrath several times.
I’ve also reread and re-reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But that’s not the only reason why I remember the content of those J.R.R. Tolkien works so well; it’s also because those four books are quite original. That kind of fantasy fiction wasn’t a big thing when Tolkien’s pioneering creations were published, though they’ve certainly been much-imitated since.
Among the other factors helping us recall the details of certain novels are adaptations into movies (the Harry Potter films, anyone?); the presence of especially indelible protagonists (think Atticus and Scout Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird); masterful prose (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an obvious example); unusual levels of violence (as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian); etc.
The mention of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga reminds me that various series enter into this discussion, too. When a series has quite a few books, each novel might blend with another in our memories.
I’ve found this to be the case with Lee Child’s 20-plus Jack Reacher novels (now co-written with Andrew Child). Every time I read a new Reacher installment — as I did last week with 2021’s Better Off Dead — I’m absolutely enthralled. Each novel is so page-turning that I read it in a day or two. But, looking back, I can barely remember what each book was about. Did that one feature such and such a crime? Or was that in a different adventure of the roaming Reacher? Heck, where WAS the setting of a particular Child novel?
Maybe the confusion is partly because the Reacher novels all have some similarities. Maybe it’s also because the books are not super-deep, though far from frivolous. But I sure enjoy the reading experience before things go down the memory hole.
Of course, Wikipedia and other online sources are quite valuable in fishing fiction facts out of that memory hole. I use them often. 🙂
To conclude, maybe it’s not super important to recall many details of lots of novels. Even if those details are mostly forgotten on the top of our minds, the best books are still part of us — having enriched us and shaped our consciousness in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Any thoughts on this topic?
Re that aforementioned podcast, brilliant host Rebecca Budd brought together three distant places — her home city of Vancouver, Canada; Dundee, Scotland; and Montclair, New Jersey — when she spoke with brilliant novelist/blogger Shehanne Moore and myself about what makes a novel a classic novel. (As you know, Rebecca and Shehanne are frequent commenters here, as are the aforementioned Liz Humphreys and Elisabeth van der Meer.) Thanks, also, to Rebecca’s husband Don for his production expertise in making the tri-country connection happen. You can click on this link to listen:
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about contradictory words and actions by my town’s mayor and League of Women Voters — is here.