Reading to Remember

Reading to Remember

Last May, I moved for the second time in a year. Anyone who has moved knows that it’s a special type of hell. My belongings seemingly doubled before my eyes as I attempted to jam everything into so many cardboard boxes and trudge them a whopping 3 blocks south. Such is the life of a city dweller; most Chicagoans have moved once a year for as long as they can remember, and I’m no exception.

At that time, I’d just begun reading Marie Kondo’s now infamous book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Although I still think she could benefit from a deep breath and a bit of therapy, following her parameters for successful decluttering  brought me to a big realization: I desperately needed to pare down my book collection.

Yes, you read that right. Allow me to explain.

I’m a person who loves books more than all other possessions. Since college, I’ve dreamed of having a large and extensive book collection that would transform any apartment into the most magical and cozy of places. For a long time, my primary strategy for achieving that goal was to keep every book I’d ever owned, including textbooks, compilations of works by authors that I detested but had been required reading for some class or another, childhood books that I’d long outgrown, books that I may have liked at one time but whose plot I could no longer recall, books that made no impression on me at all, and so on.

As I stared at my collection, no doubt trying to figure out how to fit it into as few boxes as possible, I realized that at least half of my books fell into those  aforementioned categories—books I had no emotional attachment to, couldn’t really remember, or flat out didn’t like. The most basic of all of Marie Kondo’s decluttering principles is to keep only that which inspires joy. I imagined a library full of only books that I enjoyed, books that inspired and moved me, or taught me something deep and true. I felt my heart flutter.

It took me two full days, but eventually I sorted out the books that didn’t bring me joy, and I donated them. My collection was whittled down to half of what it was. I felt relieved, lighter, truer to who I was as a reader and a writer.

However, throughout this process, I realized that I had also become a very lazy reader. Although it was liberating to clear out my bookshelf, wasn’t it also sad that so much of my reading time had been lost in the ether? Why were there so many books that I simply could not remember?

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr suggests not only reading books in your genre, but studying them.

Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions. You can’t just say “Neruda is a surrealist”; you have to quote him watching laundry “from which slow dirty tears are falling.” And you have to look up something about surrealism to define it.

Not only does this make you a crisper thinker, according to Karr, but it grounds you in your craft. Plus, I think we’ve all been in a situation where we struggle to relocate an impactful quote from a book we once read. (It took me 15 minutes to track down the quote I cited above, for example. But I’m working on it!)

As part of my year of reading, I resolved not only to read a book a week this year, but to take copious notes. I began in earnest by creating a Reading Bullet Journal.  If you’re at all connected to a planner community, you’ve probably already heard of the Bullet Journal. It’s taken the UK and the US by storm, and I am fully ensconced in it myself. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system to keep track of every facet of my life—daily appointments, my endless to-do lists, books I’ve read this year, notes about my day, shopping lists, and so on. The best part of bullet journaling is that it’s completely flexible, meaning that its principles can easily be applied to a reading journal. So I started one!

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I kept it simple, writing the title of the book, striking quotes, and a summary after I finished reading. However, as I ramped up to reading a book a week this year, I realized I couldn’t keep up with this handwritten system. For one, I do most of my reading while on public transit. When you have a book in one hand and the other is holding on to a stability pole, there’s not much opportunity for underlining your favorite quotes or jotting down thoughts. Instead, I found myself taking pictures of the pages so I could easily relocate the  quotes I wanted to remember later. In short time, my reading journal became another unopened notebook collecting dust on my shelf, and I was back to square one.

Until I stumbled upon James Clear’s blog post on strategies for retaining more of what you read. I love using an analog method to record my daily world, but I realized the ingenuity of Clear’s suggestions as soon as I finished reading his post. Clear suggests using Evernote—a platform that allows you to keep searchable notes in multiple notebooks across various devices—, or another digital note keeping system to do two things: make notes as you read and summarize the book. Using a digital system makes your notes searchable, and summarizing the book and how it intersects with other books you’ve been reading or subjects you’ve been learning about ensures that you will retain more of what you just read. I started using this system a few weeks ago. When I finish a book, I quickly write a summary, attach my quote pictures, and move on to my next book. This has been so revolutionary for me that it’s as if I finally realized why Evernote exists.

When you’re reading a book a week, your mind quickly makes connections between subjects that are seemingly disparate. It’s the most lovely part of reading so frequently and the part that I can never seem to capture. I’m excited to finally start making these connections in a way that I can easily reference later (or so I hope). To me, the intersection point between disparate ideas is where truly good writing comes from. With this new strategy at hand, I’m hoping to find more of those intersection points and jump into a truly great year of reading and writing.

 

Finding the Novel Cure

A few months back, as my bus trundled along Lake Shore Drive, carrying me to another hectic work day, I opened an article—entitled Can Reading Make You Happier?— that one of my most wonderful English professors had posted to Facebook. I already knew my personal answer to the question, but I love reading articles that confirm my anecdotal evidence, so I opened it on my cell phone and dove right in. (If you haven’t read it, stop right here and click that link immediately. Seriously, hop to it!)

To my surprise, the article that I thought would be full of statistics and scientific evidence on the mood-lifting effects of reading was actually an article on bibliotherapy, the practice of using books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Despite having both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English, I had never heard of bibliotherapy. The idea was immediately enticing. Using books to cure one’s ailments? What could be more magical and lovely?

Like most avid readers, I’ve been experiencing the power of the written word since I was young. Despite my interest in books from a young age, the first time I can remember the saving grace of words was as a junior in college. I studied abroad in Ecuador for a summer, and as I boarded the plane to go to a developing country alone, the words of Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh series kept echoing in my head: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Those words became my mantra that summer, lending me courage as I teetered above the Andes mountains in a small propeller plane flying from Quito to Cuenca, mimed my needs to my host family while trying to speak a foreign language that felt like speaking with a cork in my mouth, and navigated foreign streets in a city 15 times bigger than any city I’d ever lived in. They say that you are the stories you tell yourself, and Christopher Robin assured me that, despite my doubts and fears, I could do this on my own.

Since then, there have been plenty of times when the words of literature have surfaced from the dark of my mind, right when I’m experiencing something difficult, like a whispered thought from God. When I’m taking on a new project or I feel nervous about putting myself out there creatively or professionally, I remember “I had to do it for myself” (Everything is Illuminated). While mourning the death of my grandmother and watching the terror of the January 2015 Paris attacks, I thought of one of my most beloved protagonists, Oskar, and his “heavy boots” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). When I’m struggling with anxiety, I think of Sylvia Plath’s “I am, I am, I am” (The Bell Jar). When I feel jealous of others’ success or find myself sizing up my accomplishments with those of my coworkers or friends, I remember Amy Poehler’s “Good for her, not for me” (Yes, Please). When I’m trying to find the motivation to write or exercise or simply follow through, I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory that “any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion,” and I push myself to simply keep moving (Big Magic). Needless to say, after many books and many experiences, I’m inclined to believe that books can help with anything.

For weeks after reading that article, I’d found myself idly thinking about The Novel Cure, a sort of medical dictionary put together by two bibliotherapists, and wondering what sorts of great book recommendations lay within. So, for Christmas this year, I bought myself a copy! There’s never a time that I couldn’t use a good book recommendation to cure what’s ailing me.

The day the book arrived, I sat on my couch, leisurely paging through the list of ailments and their novel remedies. There were many that I felt applied to my life; some were concrete and diagnosable medical ailments—anxiety, having; panic attacks; flying, fear of; claustrophobia. Others were more general, abstract, and even funny ailments—Monday morning feeling; brainy, being exceptionally (an ailment that I totally understand); writer’s block; tired and emotional, being.

I continued to peruse the pages, searching for the perfect diagnosis to start with, confident that I would know it when I saw it. Then it jumped out at me. My soul gave a little gasp of immediate understanding before I even read the description for this ailment, and I knew this was where I needed to start.

City fatigue.

It is exactly what it sounds like. In my case, it’s not being able to truly nap in over two years. It’s wanting to ride the bus without having to listen to the prattling, inane conversations of 20 strangers yapping on their cell phones. It’s every time the bus doesn’t show up and it’s -25 degrees outside. It’s the drug-addled person shouting on the train while you’re locked in a tiny car in a tunnel beneath the earth. Or listening to your downstairs neighbor relentlessly blast his bass for literally 10 hours without reprieve on the day after the Paris attacks when you are hungover, weary, and sure that all of humanity is spiraling into a pit of absolute madness. It’s that unending craving for space, quiet, and delicious solitude. Yes, city fatigue and I are well acquainted, but it’s time to finally distance myself with this constant companion. So I’m starting with The City and The City by China Miéville, the recommended cure for city fatigue and a murder mystery that focuses on the tiring matter of “unseeing” those around us. With any luck, maybe I’ll learn a few coping mechanisms.

This year, I’ve resolved to read at least 27 books, or one book every other week; it’ll be challenging given that I’m planning 2 weddings and trying to establish a daily writing practice on top of regular adult duties. Moreso, the goal is to remind me of the importance of reading during every available opportunity. With The Novel Cure in my library, I know I’ll have plenty of great recommendations at my fingertips. For those of you who aren’t so interested in the physical index, you can also find plenty of good advice, book recommendations, and inspiration on The Novel Cure website. Incidentally, they also do “surgery,” or provide customized diagnoses for readers who write in with their ailments.

As for me, by the time of my next post, I’ll hopefully be ready to face the city with abandon once again. If not, there’s also a novel cure for misanthropy, so that may be the one to check out next.

Making Sense of Memory (Loss)

During my two-year stint in the Peace Corps, I developed a memory problem, or so it seemed when upon returning home I couldn’t remember how to get to my best friend’s house despite the fact that I could practically drive the route in my sleep before moving to Ecuador. “Did you really use your GPS to get here?” my friend asked when I confessed my inability to recall the route, her tone simultaneously incredulous and teasing.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember how to get to her house; I couldn’t seem to remember how to get anywhere. For weeks after returning home, I would blindly turn onto a road, not knowing exactly where it led but sensing that it would somehow get me where I needed to go. I’d gaze with no recognition at houses and farms as I passed by on a narrow back road, assuming I would instinctively know where to turn when I got there. (Luckily, this was often true, although it gave me the distinct sensation of searching for the doorway in a pitch black room, my sight reduced to only what I could see through the narrow beam of my flashlight.) Once, I zoned out while driving, as one is prone to do when surrounded by miles and miles of corn fields, and when coming back to the present moment, I couldn’t remember where I was.  Rolling along at 60 miles per hour, I squeezed my fingers a bit tighter around the steering wheel and kept driving until a landmark reminded me of my current location and my future destination. It was startling, to say the least.

In addition to general directions, I forgot the names of former classmates (even those with whom I spent a great deal of time), certain English words and phrases like “flight attendant” and “accomplish” and “take advantage,” where to find things in my childhood home, what 60 miles per hour feels like on flat land, and how to make small talk in English. I was especially concerned to find that, in addition to these relatively minor details, I had apparently forgotten memorable moments that my friends could still recount with great clarity.  “Remember when…” they’d start and I’d shuffle through my memories looking for remnants of such events, usually finding nothing but endless darkness. As they continued to describe such and such trip or concert or gathering, a certain detail would sometimes jog my memory and it would all come rushing back to me in a great flood of sights and sounds, like a sudden revelation. But more often than not, I would find myself listening to these memories, which explicitly featured me, as if I had never been there at all. More and more, I had the sensation of living outside of myself. This is how it must feel to have amnesia, I would think. Hearing someone describe yourself to yourself as if you are a character in a story you’ve never heard.  More often, my reaction consisted of a kind of detached hysteria.  I’m losing it, I would think. This is how my spiral into total memory loss begins.

Memory loss is a very real and present problem in my family. There are four people in my family with neurodegenarative diseases, two of which have suffered memory impairment of varying severity. The idea of legitimately losing my memory terrifies me—who are you if not a compilation of your memories?—and as such, it’s something I actively worry about. So I decided to “reconnect” with my former self, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that should entail; I drove past my childhood home, my high school, and my old hangouts. I listened keenly to my friends tell stories of memorable moments from high school, college, and graduate school. I looked at pictures and read old emails I had absentmindedly filed away before and during Peace Corps. And somewhere along the way I also picked up Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein.

You’ve likely heard of Joshua Foer before. He is one third of the famous Foer trio, all of whom are known for their practically prodigious literary and  journalistic accomplishments. He also won the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2006, an experience that serves as the basis for his hugely successful first book. I was in Ecuador when Moonwalking with Einstein hit the shelves; at a time when I was paying by the minute at a local internet cafe and therefore more likely to be frantically writing emails or uploading blog posts than perusing U.S. new sources, Moonwalking with Einstein was so widely featured, critiqued, and discussed in U.S. publications that even I took notice of it. So it’s no surprise that two weeks into my reading challenge I found myself swiping through a Kindle edition of Foer’s book as my morning train bumbled towards downtown.

From the beginning, I was completely enthralled by Foer’s book, which opens on the final round of one of the world’s biggest memory competitions.  Much to his surprise and everyone else’s, Foer finds himself competing alongside dedicated “memory athletes” to claim the U.S. title. In the midst of vivid descriptions of his eccentric competitors, the tense competition that brings them all together, and an extended list of things the author regularly forgot previous to his memory training, Foer lays out his overarching reason for writing the book: 

I had once read that the average person squanders about forty days a year compensating for things he or she has forgotten…. Every day there seems to be more to remember…. With a memory like [that of a mental athlete], I imagined, life would be qualitatively different—and better.

I nodded as I dragged my finger across my Kindle screen, imagining how much better life would be if I could remember anything in the gray period that extends past the moment I landed in Ecuador three years ago.  

Using the U.S.A. Memory Championship and his personal memory training as the book’s frame, Foer discusses the brain’s many mysterious properties, how memories are made and then haphazardly stored away, the varied and powerful capabilities of our own minds, and why sometimes it is necessary to forget. After reading the first couple chapters, I already had great insight into my own memory loss.  As Foer explains, memories are composed of neurological connections, that is the synaptic links that are formed between one neuron and another. We also remember things by placing them in a web of other memories, so the more often we recall a memory, the more concrete and stable those synaptic connections between memories become.  According to Foer,

The nonlinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception–some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web. So when a memory goes missing or a name gets caught on the tip of the tongue, hunting down can be frustrating and often futile.” But there is hope: “Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged.

No wonder I can’t seem to remember much of my pre-Peace Corps life, I thought. The web of neurons comprising my pre-Peace Corps memories hadn’t been activated much before I moved home. How often during my Peace Corps service had I thought about “that one time sophomore year” when my friend dressed up as the Pope and invaded my dorm room? Or the touring Broadway show I saw with my mom before leaving the country? Or those hot, sticky summers during high school when I worked the friers at my small-town burger joint? There were certainly no details or points of recognition in Ecuador to prompt me to do so. Which also made me wonder: how long will it be before I forget the finer moments of my Ecuadorian life, now that there are very few details or environmental cues to trigger my memories of them?

As I sped through the book, I was continually surprised by the ways in which Foer’s research and observations touched my life. He tells the story of EP, an older man who, like my grandmother, can’t make new memories or remember the past experiences that shaped him, but somehow still maintains his genial personality and sense of self. Foer also describes the visual memory techniques he laboriously studied for months, revealing how said techniques not only relate to creativity but have the capacity to make us more creative. As I flipped from page to page, I suddenly found myself contemplating the many ways that learning these memory techniques could, as Foer said, improve the quality of my life.

Perhaps most interesting was Foer’s explanation of chronological landmarks and how they shape the way we perceive our own lives. Foer writes,

Our lives are structured by our memories of events. Event X happened just before the big Paris vacation. I was doing Y in the first summer after I learned to drive. Z happened the weekend after I landed my first job. We remember events by positioning them in time relative to other events.

As I examined my memories of Ecuador and my life before, I found that it was true; my strongest memories are always positioned in relation to another monumental occurrence. Before embarking on my great Peace Corps adventures, for example, my family and I vacationed in Florida; my memories of the hot sand, the bike ride I took with my sister and mother on a blinding sunny day, the cool, hotel air conditioning that enveloped my tired and sunburnt body afterwards are unparalleled by other vacation memories. By creating chronological landmarks, that is noteworthy memories usually comprised of major life moments—a big move, an engagement or a breakup, your first day at your “big boy” job, for example—we create the perception of an elongated life. As Foer says,

Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it….Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.

Looking back, my two years of Peace Corps certainly do seem quite long, perhaps because every day I was doing something new and novel: learning more about Ecuadorian culture, traveling to a new, exotic (to me) locale, trying new foods, or facing challenges I had never even conceived of before.

By the time I finished Foer’s book, I had a whole new perspective on my life then and now. I reflect more on what I’ve learned in my first four months at my new job, I purposely create  novel experiences to break up my day to day, and I relive good (and sometimes even bad) memories in an effort to cement them in my mind.  After all, who doesn’t want a life that feels longer and more fully lived, even if we are simply changing our perception rather than adding extra years? 

On a final note: although scientists can document and track the firing of neurons through various brain scans, we still have no scientific evidence of memory. In other words, scientists have never been able to capture an image of memory on scans.  Have you ever thought about what a memory looks like? I certainly hadn’t, but I have on many occasions since then, which is perhaps evidence that Moonwalking with Einstein is nothing if not mind-blowing (corny pun intended). 

Intrigued? Check out Foer’s TED talk!

Do you have a great book recommendation? Feel free to leave it in the comments section!