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Kundera on memory and forgetting

Milan Kundera, a minor “Franco-Czech” novelist—not at all to be confused with the great States of Kudera you are presently perusing (oy veh)—has written new non-fiction called The Curtain and subtitled An Essay in Seven Parts. In the seventh part, he describes great obstacles to our reading of novels—memory and forgetting. For those who read Kundera, the ideas will seem familiar:

The novel, on the other hand, is a very poorly fortified castle. If I take an hour to read twenty pages, a novel of four hundred pages will take me twenty hours, thus about a week. Rarely do we have a whole week free. It is more likely that, between sessions of reading, intervals of days will occur, during which forgetting will immediately set up its worksite... Someday, years later, I will start to talk about this novel to a friend, and we will find that our memories have retained only a few shrouds of the text and have reconstructed very different books for each of us. (148-9)

Kudera’s point is an excellent one; I suspect we all remember conversations with friends about shared favorites, and how it turned out we could not remember each other’s favorite scenes, and in fact, it was even unclear if we had read the same book.

Despite Kundera’s clarity, his ideas are so pessimistic that I thought I’d dish some optimism for the day. After all, we do want to encourage our wandering youth to read!

According to my 11th grade English teacher, the trick to remembering much more of the novel is to read in great chunks. Give yourself a few solid hours with your book and try to avoid picking up the book for a few minutes at a time. A couple years later, my freshman history professor taught me that we are mistaken if we believe the more we read the more content we will have fighting for space in a limited brain. In fact, according to Professor Morgan, the brain works in the opposite way. We will remember more if we read more. My first two years of undergrad were two of the greatest reading years of my life, and I believe Professor’s Morgan’s encouragement was part of the reason.

So all thee young and old, before you submit to the boob tube or the Belgian beer, sit very still with book in lap, read for a few hours, and then sit back and savor the company of your memories. Need a good title? Immortality and The Unbearable Lightness of Being are said to be Kundera’s best books, but I recommend The Joke. If you like short stories, check out, “The Hitchhiking Game” or “Let the Old Dead Make Way for the Young Dead.”


Eric said…
Excellent post. I agree with both Kundera and your former English teacher. Every time someone gives me a novel, I feel obligated to spend a weekend (or longer -- I'm glad that Kundera is also apparently a slow reader) in a Borders armchair just to finish the damn thing quickly enough so that I don't forget what it's about while I'm still reading it.

-- Eric Thurschwell

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