Most of us have a list of our most memorable books. Such a book is generally distinct from simply a ‘good read’. It made a lasting impression, made you sorry that it had to end, perhaps made you want to read it again, changed your perspective in some way, or even provided something life changing. And you’ll remember everything about it, title, author, cover, characters, even where you were where you read it and how you felt. For myself, I will never forget reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, one weekend in my early twenties, pre-family responsibilities, engrossed to the point of hypnotized; it was almost too intense at times, but I couldn’t look away. I don’t have that same copy now, but I remember the cover, and recognise it to this day.
But there is a more twilit land of books that made some sort of impression on you as a reader, but you sort of partially remember.
I had one of these the other day. I could remember the plot, the two main female characters and their names, the dual time settings, context, even a lot of the detail… but could bring to mind neither the author nor the title. It bugged me. I Googled furiously, and after several minutes found it: Casualties by Lynne Reid Banks. After I found it, it all came back. And to be fair, much as I can admire Reid Banks as a writer, and much as I found the book enjoyable and revealing, it is a pretty weak title, and was, at least the edition I encountered, a dreadful cover (sorry! – but make up your own mind: I’ve included a picture of it).
This almost certainly has something to tell us about the importance of choosing the right title and selecting a striking book cover. Much advice has been written about this. It also tells us about the human mind and human nature.
Because memory, we know, is a messy concept. We all have a ‘selective memory’, but remembering and forgetting are not binary processes. Lots of books we’ve read, therefore, exist in that shadowy land between remembering and forgetting. Sometimes, often for no evident reason, a memory of them is jogged free.
There are resources to help you find a book you cannot recall the title or author of. Obviously search engines, as in my case. LibraryThing’s ‘Name that Book’ function looks lively, at the time of writing – I hope posters get to find out books about, for instance ‘a penguin knitting a scarf’. The What’s the Name of That Book??? UNSOLVED message board on Goodreads also shows up recent postings and responses. Others will be more active on social media than I am – I believe there are a number of subreddits on Reddit, for instance.
Several years ago, a study by Literary Hub asked How many books will you read before you Die? And came up with, unsurprisingly, a variety of numbers, based on variables relating to gender, age, life expectancy(!), and whether you are an ‘average’, ‘voracious’, or ‘super’ reader. Putting myself in the ‘voracious’ category (by the definition of the article, around 50 books read per year – I read less now than I used to), I gained a total of just over 2,000 books. Somehow, it didn’t seem that many – cue ‘so little time and yet so many books to read’ panic. Anyway, check it out for yourself here, if you don’t find the concept too morbid.
With those figures though, why should tracking down the occasional half-remembered one matter?
I don’t have much in the way of rational explanation. True there may be the one you lost but want to finish – an example for me, an enjoyable book of short stories that disappeared in a New York City hotel room a few years ago (looked under and inside everything, shook out the bedding… Nothing), that remains unfinished, though a search that now tells me it was by Lydia Davies. In another example, there’s a book I read as a child and wanted to pass on to my daughter – a doughty Victorian aunt gathers a band of her nieces together to crew a boat on a voyage of overseas adventure (never have retrieved that one from the dusk of forgetfulness – and my daughter’s too old for it now).
Then again, there may be books to re-read – I am not a big re-reader personally, but it happens. If anyone is aware of the name of a book, by a female and I think Italian author about a group of counter-culture young people, caught up in love triangles, taking a train from Italy to Sweden… please do let me know. I passed it on to someone one distant Greek holiday, just after the last page was turned and I hadn’t had time properly to reflect on it.
In the main, though, I think the answer is because for those of us who are those ‘voracious’ or ‘super’ readers, books are one of the ways in which we map out and recall our lives. Our relationship with them can become very personal. So would it be too fanciful to suggest that it’s like remembering a piece of yourself?
References and sources
Emily Temple, ‘How many books will you read before you die’ on Literary Hub, March 2017, retrieved 14 June 2020, https://lithub.com/how-many-books-will-you-read-before-you-die/
LibraryThing ‘Name that book’ https://www.librarything.com/groups/namethatbook
Goodreads ‘What’s the name of that book???’ Group https://www.goodreads.com/topic/list_group/185-what-s-the-name-of-that-book