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.