Quick: what were the last five books you read?
If you are in your twenties, you could probably remember, but since you haven’t read five books since college, the point is moot. If you are in your thirties, it doesn’t count, because you read “Pat the Bunny” five times to your toddler last night and that’s too easy. If you are in your forties, you might have a shot at it, but you are too stressed out by your teens or pre-teens, the situation at work and the wildly careening stock market to read or remember what you read. So that leaves those of you who are fifty and over, and if you can spout off your last five reads and throw in the names of the authors, as well, you win a hearty round of applause from me. Because I can’t remember a damned thing.
I think it was in my early fifties that I started to notice the sputtering memory. Chalked it up to stress and hormones. Now that I have to check the “over 60” box on survey forms, I have no excuse other than advancing age for these wild flights of memory.
And wild, they are. I try to remember those last five books. I finished one yesterday, so that one is in the bag. (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. I think they’ve just adapted it for Broadway so you should read it before you see it.) The one before it, yup, got it. (The Island of the World, by Michael D. O’Brien, possibly my favorite read of the year thus far.) Then it gets a bit murky. I put on my glasses so I can think better. How crazy is that? But it helps. (I also hear better if I have my glasses on. Go figure.) Third book back, I draw a complete and utter blank. Oh, wait, it was a book club book. Now I remember. (The Unwinding, by George Packer. Hmmm, there are reasons why I put that one out of my memory.) And then there was the other book club book before that one. (Sweet Thunder, by Ivan Toig, in which I learned about copper mining and Butte, Montana. Not that I will remember any of it…)
But what was the fifth one back? I keep a list of all these books but I want to make myself remember without looking at it. Ugh. I know it, I just can’t think of it. And then, the addled brain takes over and we go on a little ride together. Forget linear memory. Nowadays, everything I want to keep is chambered away in a spiraling nautilus shell. What did I read before that book club book? Well, that chamber is closed, slammed shut, but I had lunch with a friend this week and we talked about books. So I remember our conversation and how great it was to see her and what I ordered for lunch (the half papaya with crabmeat, although I still cannot remember what I had for dinner night before last). And then I remember we talked about our kids and that takes awhile, of course.
Then it comes to me, through mists of gray matter, that I can remember what she was reading (Treasure Island). And then my mind goes off-task, remembering that the chickens must be put away and the dogs must be fed and just as I pick up a cup of scratch with which to lure the hens home to their coop to rescue them from that hawk swirling ever closer in the sky, I REMEMBER! The nautilus curves and a chamber opens: I had told my friend that I’d just read the tome that is Don Quixote and she almost dropped her fork and said her husband is currently reading it, too, and we marveled that two people voluntarily committed at nearly the same time to read the 900+ page Don Quixote that could function equally well as a novel or a door-stop.
So there it is. I came up with those last five books but in the same amount of time one of you probably solved a quadratic equation or cured some form of cancer.
Memory is different from memories, by the way. I can remember the clothes my kids wore when they were small. (Daniel’s blue and yellow star-covered onesie was a favorite, and then there were all those Hanna Andersson striped jammies…but I digress) I can remember in technicolor detail the night I met my husband. I can remember the words to almost every Joni Mitchell song. And, inexplicably and maddeningly, the words and melody to the 1968 hit “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations. But what I had for dinner night before last? Forget it.
One thing I did manage to remember was a conversation some friends were having about their favorite poet, Billy Collins. I should be embarrassed that I’d never heard of him, but then, it’s entirely possible I had and just didn’t remember, right? Collins was our Poet Laureate from 2001-2003. The New York Times called him “America’s most popular poet”. I missed him when he came to speak in Santa Barbara last spring, but finally looked him up and found this poem he wrote, which has made me an instant fan:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
I fully intend to remember Mr. Collins and read more of his poetry. We’ll see how that goes. Oh, and I finally remembered what I had for dinner night before last. It was a half of a dried-up leftover hamburger. Brain food, I hope…
Have a memorable weekend!