Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011
Five years ago, I had a memory crisis. A friend had just read Jeffrey Eugenides’ acclaimed and extensive family saga, Middlesex. I’d read it too, on holiday in Japan a couple of years before. ‘What did you think?’ he asked. For someone whose patter can sometimes seem ceaseless, my reply was underwhelming: ‘Um,’ I said, ‘I think I liked it.’
Since this conversational ground was proving less than worthy of being mined, my friend and I moved on to another topic, but I didn’t forget my annoying inability to remember anything about books – the category of cultural item I professed to love the most. It was sheer vanity to claim I loved to read if I couldn’t even recall the barest detail of former paper-and-ink companions.
As in 2011, so in 2007 – I turned to the internet to solve my problem, and I thought it would be a good idea to start a blog as a sort of literary aide-memoire. I resolved to faithfully record my thoughts about every book I read. Would I, a known shirker of extra-curriculars, be able to keep up with this project? Surely the panopticon-like accountability of the web would keep me honest?
At first, it wasn’t to be. My first year of writing about books was dismal by any standard – I managed an uninspired fourteen blog posts. These initial writings barely warrant a mention here; they consisted of large, clunky paragraphs, and I seemed uninterested in structure or argument of any kind. But I gradually became more disciplined, and I began to read more widely. I also started reviewing books for media outlets.
As anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to chat with me about reading can attest, documenting my responses to books turned out to be a pretty successful way of augmenting my poor memory. But there were some very welcome side-effects to the new read-and-record process. My enjoyment of the qualities of novels, short stories and essays grew as I became better at parsing their elements. Nuances of language seemed more apparent – perhaps I was developing a better sense of what to look for. Resonances between verses or short stories started to sing, and the lineage of particular novels or phrases was easier to trace. In what was one of the better accidents of my life, I was becoming a better reader.
These days, I work full-time and freelance in spare moments, which has left me with less time than I’d like for literary account-keeping. But when I do read a book, whether for review or for leisure, my impetus is still the same as it was when I started blogging about books five years ago. Writing about books is my way of remembering and understanding what I read, and also my own response to it. This way, I give the book and its author the best reading I can offer. Yes, it’s a modest claim, but it’s a humbling and delightful task.