The (Sort of) Persistence of Memory

My family knows me very well. I have always been quite open about both my emotions and opinions (I’m going with “open” as opposed to “an over-sharer”), and I feel like I’m relatively easy to figure out as a person anyway. However, there are some (very minor) misconceptions that have worked their way into the things people believe about me. I’m not talking about misjudgments of character or anything like that. I’m strictly speaking about the completely innocuous and at most mildly annoying assumptions that people make. I’m sure everyone knows someone who once expressed mild fondness for an animal/flower/band/etc. only for the world to decide that they are OBSESSED with that animal/flower/band/etc. and to make it the theme of every gift forever. That person then goes on to politely accumulate like 8,000 peacock figurines, which they now regard with an air of grim resignation.

For me, the strange mythologies that have sprung up around me are “Kathleen is never cold” and “Kathleen remembers everything about the books she reads.” As for the former, just because I like cool weather doesn’t mean I’m not cold in the dead of winter. (Also, the reason I wander around the house barefoot when it’s cold out, Mom, is that my feet are literally always cold and I just don’t notice it anymore. Also we’re inside.)

I realized recently that even I had fallen for the latter misconception, though. My memory is indeed very strong in some regards. For example, I have some memories from a weirdly early age. My earliest is from around 18 months, when my mom EXTREMELY ACCIDENTALLY hit me in the face with a seat belt. I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical, but I’ve corroborated specific details that were never part of a story about it, such as what side of the car I was sitting on and details about the car seat. (Also, can I just reiterate how much my mom did not mean to do this? She cried way harder than I did.) I have multiple memories from ages two and three, as well — bouncing in the stroller with my sister over a cobblestone road is a particularly fond one.

Then when I started to read, I was never content to only read one book at a time. Once I discovered The Baby-Sitters Club, I would have a stack six- or seven-deep beside my bed at all times, with a bookmark in each one. (I probably would have had more if I’d been allowed to take more out from the library.) My parents would marvel aloud that I could keep all of the stories straight, and lo, a personal legend was born.

I definitely cultivated this perception of me as a Reader Extraordinaire. I was deeply protective of and arrogant about this aspect of my identity, as I think many bookish kids are. I remember having “quote competitions” with my best friend circa eighth grade, in which we would quote the most impossibly obscure lines from Harry Potter at each other, trying to come up with one that the other person wouldn’t recognize. (I think we stumped each other once each.) Obnoxious performative bookishness aside, I genuinely could rattle off a great deal of detail from the books that I read and loved.

As I look at my bookshelf now, though, I find plenty of books that I know I enjoyed, but can barely remember anything about. I mentioned that I was rereading one of these forgotten books several months back, and my mom teased, “I didn’t think you ever forgot a book.” My arrogant child self experienced a brief moment of panic. I looked over the shelves and realized that details about characters and plots from books I had read only in the past few months now escaped me. What had become of my amazing book memory?

Well, my memory probably isn’t actually as good as it was when I was a kid. I definitely don’t read seven books at once anymore. But also, it was probably never actually that amazing, anyway. I’ve never been all that great with names, and even less so with dates. (Minoring in art history was a bit of a challenge.) The books I remember the best from childhood are either the ones that I read for school or the ones that became all-time favorites. The connection? Conversation. I never immediately stored the information I read in my long-term memory the way I’d proudly assumed that I did. I just talked about books literally all the time, and the repetition drove the details home. The books on my shelves that I don’t remember as well are the ones I’ve never had an in-depth discussion about.

I’ve always had a vague hypothesis that being a twin has a lot to do with my long memory. My sister also remembers our adventures in the stroller. I don’t know if she remembers the seat belt incident, but she does remember me falling down the stairs at my grandparents’ house when we were two. (I didn’t actually get injured all that often.) Our parents and other adult relatives obviously spoke to us all the time, but we also spoke to each other. These were conversations between cognitive equals, so we probably had to work harder to understand and be understood. I wonder if there was something about our communication skills growing in tandem that helped us to store our shared experiences in our memories. Of course, I know very little about the science of memory, so I could be entirely making this up. (It’s possible that my sister, who does know about the science of memory, will yell at me after I post this.) But I do have a good memory for conversations I have had, and it seems probable that my “good memory for books” had more to do with that aspect of my cognition than it ever had to do with actually reading.

This realization actually makes me really happy. I may not have been as ~remarkable as I once thought I was, but I did have a family who let me babble to my heart’s content about the books that I liked. Later on, I found friends who were eager to do the same. I still get to talk about books that I have in common with these friends, and I cherish and remember these conversations. The fact that I don’t remember all the books on my shelf just means that I need to make time for more of these conversations. I’ve been living alone since completing my Master’s, and though I was only literally a hermit for six months, I sometimes let myself get a bit isolated. I’m going to try to stop doing that. I want to have as many memories as possible.

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