More on memory

podA  couple weeks ago when we chatted about minutiae and what we remember, I said I haven’t figured out any rhyme or reason for what sticks. Days later as I finished up our book club selection, July, July by Tim O’Brien, I came across the following passage, a post-coital tête-à-tête between Paulette and Billy:

“They agreed that a human life mostly erased itself at the instant that it was lived. They agreed, too, that out of their combined time on earth, which amounted to more than a century, only a scant few hours survived in memory. ‘It’s what we decide that sticks,’ Paulette said. ‘When we say yes, when we say no. Those over-the-cliff choices we make . . .  That’s what makes a life a life, because you lose everything else – peeing, soap operas, scabs, vacations, almost every phone conversation you ever had. Huge chunks of time. Like you never used your own life.’” p. 292

Fancy that! After I had just chewed on this very thing, I stumble upon this passage. And it was after our actual book club meeting because I wasn’t quite finished when we met. Books are amazing that way. I feel like when we read, we do so through our own personal filter, so we each experience a book in an organic and completely unique way. Maybe the beginning of the book planted the seeds for this passage, surely it did, which in the deep wrinkles of my unconscious got me thinking about memory, which led to my post. Any way you look at it, the act of reading fiction is a dance between art and life and you never quite know how it’s going to turn out – the book or your life. It’s as if a book has the potential to unfurl in a completely different way depending on whose hands crack the spine.

Having said that, I’m not sure I agree with what O’Brien proposes here. I think we do remember the choices we make, but just as often we remember the exact sound of the school bell, the feel of the mesh cots for napping in kindergarten, the withering sensation when an older boy walked in on you pretending to be a ballerina with a tutu pulled up over your corduroys. There are things that make an impression precisely because you don’t get to pick them.

I am, however, flattened by O’Brien’s hubris in putting actual temporal parameters on how much we remember. To say that mere hours survive out of more than a hundred years of lived lives is staggering. Almost cruel. I can’t say I disagree, but I can’t say I like it.

post script: if you’ve never read Tim O’Brien, do, but don’t read July, July. The Things They Carried is much better. More Vietnam, less mopey baby boomers.

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