“The Plot Escapes Me”

There have been a number of write-ups of late discussing style vs. content – the WAY a book is written as opposed to what’s actually IN it. There was an article in the Books section of the New York Times – I’d link to it but I only have the body of the article (which somebody emailed to me back in September) – still, if you want to hunt for it in archives you might find it if you plug in the name of the author (James Collins) and the title of the piece (which is the title of this post, which makes it easy enough…) The gist of it was that the author – himself a writer – read this book which he could not put down, and then found himself unable to recall what the actual plot of said book was.  “I don’t remember the books I read”, Mr Collins says.”All I associate [with books I have loved] is an atmosphere and a stray image or two, like memories of trips I took as a child.”

Nor was he alone in this, he found. Anecdotal evidence, he says, shows that most people do not and cannot remember details of books they read a month ago. And he turns and looks at his bookshelf, full of books he loved, enjoyed… and cannot give a plot synopsis of… and asks himself if he might just as well have spent the time he used up in reading them by watching golf on TV or some other silly transient activity.

And recoils from the idea.

And actually called up Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University and the author of “Proust and the  Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain” iIn an interesting coincidence, I just got a copy of that book for Christmas…) to find out what she thought about this problem.

And the professor said, “I totally believe that you are a different person for having read that  book. I say that as a neuroscientist and an old  literature major.”

Professor Wolf spoke to him about how reading reshaped a human brain – about the manner in which knowledge and memory is stored (we may not be able to immediately recall a single specific fact, like a plot summary, but we are able to access the whole gestalt in what she quotes somebody by the name of William James having called a “wraith of memory” (an idea which I, as a storyteller, immediately fell in love with, naturally) Our minds store information in NETWORKS, with an extraordinary capacity for storage which is only fractionally used, and stuff is tucked away in pockets in there somewhere which we don’t even realise is there. Things you read are still working on you, years after you’ve finished with them, in mysterious ways.  A well-known and well-respected writer blogged recently about her brush with “unintentional plagiarism” – she wrote something she could have sworn was her own original work but a couple of phrases bugged her sufficiently for her to finally Google them and discover that they had come, verbatim, from a poem she had read years ago and completely (consciously) forgot about. But the phrases that had touched her were there, still there, lurking in the shadows, until something triggered them and they came out again into the light of day.

“It’s there,” Professor Wolf says to James Collins when he cogitates on whether time spent reading all those books had not been a waste after all. “You are the sum of it all.”

Sure, there are certain kinds of books we read for the INFORMATION. They are usually studied, though, rather than read – you will be sitting there taking notes, consulting footnotes, generally indulging in a form or research rather than pure reading. The things you pick up to read for the sake of interest or enjoyment, the kind of book you curl up in an easy chair with, a cat at your feet and a cup of coffee within reach, well, you read them for the love. If, after it all, you find yourself remembering actual details of the story you’ve just read, that’s a bonus. The real treasures are in the fractals of memory – this book made me cry, that book made me laugh, this third one made me furious and roused my passions, the fourth one gave me a sense of serenity. You might find yourself re-reading  a book not because you are so very much in love with its plot or its characters but because you are seeking to recreate a certain mood which you recall that book having put you in the first time you encountered it. And that’s  perfectly okay. As a reader, I have many of those books on my own shelves.

As a writer – if any of my readers came back to me and told me that they couldn’t remember the name of my protagonist but that they remembered that the book in which that protagonist occurred had made them feel happy… why, my work is done.

It’s perfectly * all right* if the details of the plot escape you. If you remember happiness… you’ll come back to look for more of that. And that’s just fine with me.

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  1. 1. Adele

    Great post and I am fascinated by teh research so thanks for flagging that up!
    I tend to read certain types of books quite quickly, enjoying them in a short burst, forgetting the details shortly after the covers are closed( for this reason I write reviews within 24hours of finishing) and revisiting later knowing I will rediscover much of what delighted me the first time all over again.
    That’s the great joy for me of course, that I can re read a book I love over and over and always find things that feel new to me.

  2. 2. Pearce Shea

    Isn’t this really the old entertainment v. art argument? Most readers read for entertainment, which means the best they are going to get are vague impressions left by the book. Readers that read to enjoy the art of fiction, however, will struggle through a lot of the genre fiction the entertainment-preferring reader enjoyed.

    And there are plenty of books where the real pleasure is the artifice.

    That said, there is also something else going on in that article and it touches on how we think of ourselves as readers. I think the reason that many people, especially booky and/or well-educated people recoil from the idea that they are left with only vague impressions of a book they just read is that it flies in the face of how they probably see themselves. They read or write for the NYT, they read NYT-approved books, which are frequently difficult, and often written for the few that prefer artifice over entertainment. These readers consider themselves (and they may well be) intellectuals and while they may not consider themselves in the same sort of class as, say, James Wood or Harold Bloom, they do think that their insight into a book should be commiserate with its difficulty. The fact of the matter is, few people really interact with fiction like the way they imagine they do (can you read Bloom’s The Art of Reading Poetry or Wood’s How Fiction Works and honestly say that that is how you read?). There’s a reason James Wood can quote Madame Bovary from memory: he’s read it more times than I care to count.

  3. 3. Laura

    I can understand the not remembering of the details, for when I get totally enraptured by a book, it’s a pure emotional ride and I can sit and read a entire book in a 12 – 15 hour stint if that’s what it takes.

    And then later because I did enjoy the book so much I will go back and re-read it for the details, although I will do it over a week or more.

    But I got to say nothing beats that first rush.

  4. 4. Jeff

    My first time commenting here — glad to have found your blog!

    This is a fascinating post. For me, the re-reading of books is almost purely to re-experience that emotional atmosphere rather than to pick up more details. Depending on my mood at the time, the experience can shift such that I get different things from the text, making it an ever-evolving process.

  5. 5. Pat FitzGerald-Nash

    I can generally remember the broad details of plot, in the sense that the events cascade like those patterns made of falling dominoes. I’m embarrassed to admit that I draw a blank on the names of the authors,and sometimes the title as well, leaving me waving my hands at other fans and saying things like, “You know, the book where the heroine, Nana or Nora or something like that, finds this ancient book in the attic and brings it to the rare book store and when the owner posts the information on line the devotees of the old gods try to steal it by pretending to be cable installers and/or Fuller Brush salewomen and/or exterminators, and then kill her cat, and she meets up with an anthropologist who finds a bunch of spells to confuse the cultists but they decide the only way out of the mess is to destroy the book but it turns out it is sentient — come on, you KNOW the one I mean..”
    However, since I read a fair amount of genre fiction, including mysteries, the stories are usually plot driven, and while you forget enough detail to be mildly surprised by minor points on re-reading, I generally remember whether the butler did it.

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Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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