* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the day off. This column has been slightly edited since it first appeared in 2006.
An acquaintance of mine got worked up recently when I told him that I didn’t remember what he had written in his book. I’d read it a few years ago and forgotten even the most basic information.
To my surprise, it wasn’t my forgetting that bothered him. Quite the contrary. He was concerned about my apologizing. I felt I had done something wrong by forgetting, but he said, “Absolutely not.”
“People should read for pleasure,” he insisted. “Whether they remember or not doesn’t matter. Too many people give up on reading because they don’t remember well, but what counts is the experience of reading, whatever you take from it. If you don’t remember, that’s OK.”
Our conversation took me back to a column I had written in 1998 about my struggles with memory. The column was about New Year’s resolutions and memory, so I rerun it today, slightly revised.
Here’s what I’ve learned about New Year’s resolutions. You make ‘em. You break ‘em. You make ‘em again.
What’s different in my case is that in between, I forget them. I don’t know if this happens to other people because I learned long ago that my memory, although normal in most respects, has some odd holes.
My family finds this amusing, particularly when it comes to movies. Three days after we saw “Conspiracy Theory,” for example, they were giggling about a black helicopter they spotted over the freeway, and I had to ask what they were laughing about.
I had already forgotten a recurring joke from the movie.
After two weeks, I forget major themes. After a month, I forget the characters or the actors who played them. The fact that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, paired in ”You’ve Got Mail,” previously teamed up in “Sleepless in Seattle” was news to me, even though I saw both movies.
I also have trouble remembering books. One of my past resolutions was to read more books, and although I’ve kept that resolution, I wonder what I’ve accomplished. A few weeks after I finish a book, I forget the names of the characters, the main incidents, and sometimes even the theme. The only part I don’t forget is the overall feeling of “I liked that one” or “I didn’t.”
This could lead a person to wonder how I got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in comparative literature, which involved a lot of reading, much of it in French and Spanish. Strangely, the languages have stayed with me but the books are gone.
I liked “Madame Bovary.” It was in French. Don’t ask me anything else about it.
How did I pass tests? Like any person with a disability, I found ways to compensate. My copy of “Madame Bovary” has circles around the characters’ names and handwritten notes on every page. Not profound thoughts about literature, mind you, but a simple plot summary such as you might find in “Cliff’s Notes.”
Every time I took a test, I flipped through every page of every book that would be covered, until I had pulled information back into short-term memory. After the test, the details would fly away again.
Embarrassed about my poor memory, I kept it secret. Privately, I tried to understand it. I noticed that after seeing a movie a second time or reading a book twice, I remembered it better. A third or fourth repetition secured it in my brain as well as in anyone’s. After 20 viewings of the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker,” I can recite every line.
I also noticed that my mental process while watching movies or reading books is somewhat unique and may interfere with memory. I tend to think about current concerns, whatever they may be.
For example, as I watched “You’ve Got Mail,” my mind jumped repeatedly to a friendship I maintain via email. I wondered if my friend and I know each other less well than we think, because so much of our contact is disembodied. Or, on the contrary, do we touch the essence of each other, as Hanks and Ryan do in the movie?
As you can imagine, these musing — happening in the theater — take me away from the movie, sometimes far away, which contributes to my forgetting.
My New Year’s resolution is to become more open about my spotty memory.
Even among the few people I’ve already told, I have found several others with idiosyncratic memory problems that they hide from the world. These maladies are not as serious as other problems people conceal, such as eating disorders or the inability to read, but like any secret, they affect the way you greet the world, particularly in a high-brow town like Davis.
Being more open will make it easier for me to relax when readers remember my columns better than I do.
And the next time someone comes up to me and says, “I loved your last column, but I don’t remember what it was about,” I’ll be able to smile and say, “I know just what you mean.”
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org