In the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a memorable, somewhat spooky scene towards the end where astronaut Dave is pulling the chips from the memory banks of HAL, the ship’s AI computer. HAL begs Dave to stop while his memories recede:
Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave…Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it.
I can feel it.
I’m a… fraid…
I felt a bit like HAL while I was sorting through my book collection during my downsizing exercise these past weeks. I’ve been setting aside books for sale, or donation, clearing piles of books from the floor, unwinding two-and-three-deep stacks, comparing editions of the same title. I’ve been making keep or discard decisions like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a defeated gladiator. Thumbs up? Back to the shelf! Thumbs down? Into the box! And with it goes my memory.
Every title is a memory, a piece of my history, a plank in my foundation; every book pulled from the shelves for disposal feels like I’m abandoning part of who I am. I am betraying myself. How will I still be able to connect with that past, with that person, without the book to transport me there? Dave, I’m afraid… I felt sympathy for the computer during that scene. I know his pain.
Memory, you learn as you age, is both precious and fragile. I looked through a box of old photographs, only remembering the people and places in them because I am holding the image in my hand. They had retreated among the benthos of my memories until the moment I looked at it.
Emotions are attached to memories; the simultaneous sense of loss and re-discovered passions boiled up within me when I looked at the photograph. Friends and lovers restored, even if only for that brief moment. Throwing those images away is like Dave unplugging HAL. With that photograph in hand, I can go spelunking into my past and rediscover a whole subterranean world buried within me.
Memory is also plastic: like a metamorphic rock, it changes under the heat and pressure of time and emotions. When I read articles I wrote decades ago, in magazines and publications long forgotten, I can’t see in them the person I am today. I try to recall what prompted me to write it, to put those words into the order as I did then, who that person was behind the keyboard. I can’t recall the tides of decision-making that tugged me to submit what ended up in publication. But then I sometimes recall an editor I had coffee with, or the person I interviewed over a beer, even though the subject of the piece that resulted escapes me.
In his 2004 novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, author Umberto Eco, tells the tale of Yambo, an antiquarian bookseller, who has had a stroke. He has lost part of his memory; he can’t recall his wife or her name, his children; his grandchildren, or where any of them live. His present is a tabula rasa. But he can recall lines and phrases from books he has read in the past; he can recall random facts from encyclopedias. His personal past has gone; his remaining memories belong to someone else’s words.
He retreats to his family home in the countryside where he grew up. There he spends his days mostly in solitude, reading through the books still there; books that date back to his grandparent’s time through to his own childhood. Reading those books sparks memories within him. He slowly remembers what he calls, “the gamut of mysterious flames, mild tachycardias, and sudden flushes that many of those readings gave rise to for a brief instant, which dissolved as quickly as they had come, making way for new waves of heat.”
I often feel those flames flicker when I take a book down from my shelf; usually some title long neglected or ignored; the most suitable candidate for disposal. But when I open it, when I read within, I find the embers of memories still smolder in its pages. And those memories grow, rhizomatic, to seek out others and others. They reach people, jobs, and places from my past. I grow reluctant to let it go because it evokes such memories.
Reviewer Ian Sansom called Eco’s novel, “essentially and specifically a profound meditation on the nature of memory and forgetting.” And reviewer Stephanie Merritt called it, “the starting point for a profound study of the influences that shape and determine a life, though he quickly leaves the science behind and moves into the more familiar terrain of history and literature.” For me, it was a poignant allegory about age, memory, and mortality that melded with my recent thoughts on downsizing.
In a sense, I feel like Yambo going in reverse. I, too, have those brilliant flashes of memory as I pick out books from my shelves; even more when I gather newspapers and magazines I wrote for or edited. The latter are far more powerful talismans for memory and its bridesmaid; nostalgia. But then I put them in a box for disposal that I cannot help but think of as the “box of forgetting” — once it leaves my sight, it makes its way to the bookstore, or for the papers, the dump. Then it is no longer a touchstone I can hold and call up the magic of its memory for myself. Will I remember any of it in another decade?
What if, like Yambo, I too have a stroke? That’s not an unreasonable concern for a man my age. What if, should I have a stroke, my memory sublimates as his did? What if all I’m left with is the glaciated bedrock of my past? Those tough Paleozoic memories laid down in the ancient neural stone, now scraped clean of the soil of modern deposition by the burst blood vessels in my brain. How will I reconnect to my present, my today self, without these books?
Without my books, how will I remember the British infantry, kneeling behind a small rise in the ground near Waterloo, rising with muskets ready to fire as the French approached? How will I remember the sad walk of Anne Boyelyn on that dull morning as she went to her death? Or the desperate, room-to-room fights between weary soldiers among the wintery rubble at Stalingrad? How will I recall Samuel Johnson’s brilliant witticisms or Milton’s sublime poetry? How will I remember reading Kerouac’s On the Road at the very time I too, was travelling across country? Or the opening of Chaucer’s Prologue to his Canterbury Tales? The joy of Shakepeare’s stirring monologues? The striking wisdom of a Zen koan? All of these, and more, are in my books.
I realize, of course, that many of my books seem like anachronisms in the digital world. A thesaurus, dictionaries, style and punctuation guides, books of quotations, type catalogues, language guides. These were books that once shored up my everyday working life. Books I pored over to find suitable words, phrasing, to resolve an issue of usage or grammar, to choose the right typeface, to decide how to size a photograph and cutline. They were the gentle, yet firm, guiding hands behind my career.
“You can get it all on the internet today,” said the bookseller, returning the box of such tomes I offered her last week. But, I wanted to argue, these are books. They are credible sources; they are teachers and professors in ink. So little online is credible. The internet isn’t built on solidity: it’s transient, ephemeral, full of noise and codswallop. Books are permanent. Books are real. How can they be replaced by something so impermanent? Books are solid scaffolding upon which you can build credibility; the internet is a collection of flimsy cobwebs.
People invent quotations online and stick inappropriate names on them at a whim, then post them on un-moderated and un-verified “quotation” sites that are in reality simply clickbait for advertisers. Pseudo-quotes get shared in memes on social media as if they were real, but they are fake and few know how to verify them, or have the source material to do so. Books are the source material. They cannot be replaced by the internet any more than a TV hospital drama can replace actual healthcare. These books I hold contain uncontestable, trustworthy sources for quotations.
What if the internet was to crash today? What if all those sites, those blogs, those Facebook and Twitter posts, those Instagram photos, those misattributed quotes just disappeared? Where would people turn to for information, for facts, for credibility? Books. Or at least those who still remember how to use them would. I want to be among that rarified stratum; those who still read and hold books dear, for whom books are gateways to remembering. I want to be among those keepers of memories who know what page to turn to in order to answer a question.
No, I wanted to argue, these books are not virtual; mere images on a screen: these books contain reality. You can hold them, feel their weight, smell their age, sense their gravitas in your hands. They are the result of hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of research, verification, editorial drudges checking and double-checking for accuracy. But she handed me the box of unwanted books before I could say anything and I meekly took them back.
Maybe someone else will want these memories of mine.