On the Need to Reread

I’m about to begin a rereading of Neuromancer for that article on spatial metaphors, geopolitics, and cyberspace I’ve been working on. And it suddenly occurs to me: I’m re-reading this novel for the umpteenth time. I’ve read it for fun. I’ve read it to write about it. And I’ve read it to teach it. Three times. Not all of these readings have been complete or cover-to-cover, but I have had at least two such full-length linear encounters with the novel in the last four years.

And yet: I have to read it again before I can write this article.

Is it just me — am I just spectacularly forgetful — or is there something in the sped-up twenty-first century computer-engaged television-saturated brain that accounts for this need to revisit a novel each and every time I write about or teach it? Is this, for instance, the result of a change in educational strategies over the last few decades? I have marvelled, at times, at the astonishing textual memories that a number of my senior colleagues have; they can not only quote extensively from texts in their own periods and specialties, but have impressive powers of recall of details from texts from all periods. It’s a power that can quickly make me feel inadequate; I can quote the occasional line here and there, and I can remember the broad outlines of plot and character, but usually very little in the way of detail.

This begins to account for some of that slowness in reading I recently bemoaned; in order to make sure that I have some reasonable recall of a text (particularly something critical or theoretical that I’m hoping not to have to re-read repeatedly), I have to take extensive notes. But perhaps there’s the problem — maybe Plato was right, and by externalizing my memory in this way, all I learn is forgetfulness.


  1. KF,

    There may be a social dimension to the recall of texts. Those folks who can recite from memory have “practiced” the text in the sense they have performed it and have received feedback if their version was a bit off. (something slightly agonistic in that set up)

    Now blogging your notes to a reading of a text could represent a kind of practice where one gets feedback. (something more collaborative in such a set up)

    Apples and oranges? Memory in agonistic settings versus the virtues of forgetfulness in collaborative settings?

    Now was that “Play it, Sam.” or “Play it again, Sam.” ? 🙂

  2. In Belfast we were approached by a man on the street who exhumed from the army of plastic bags tied to his bicycle the books he was reading. They were academic texts by well-known and celebrated physicists, and he quoted from them, and told us exactly the page in some other book where we could find a clear elucidation of the laws of thermodynamics; how many lines was devoted to each law; and who had written the book, what her post is and where she teaches now.

    One of my friends later remarked that the man must have been autistic. Makes sense I guess, but perhaps it reminds you of your senior colleagues? Perhaps in those days, the mentally ill entered the academy instead of taking to the streets.

    Perhaps instead, though, they did a lot of rereading in those days, when it was assumed you could learn most effectively by digging deeply into the “classics.”

    My first college paper was late because the night before I couldn’t bear to start without rereading Plato’s Symposium, which I had only read that same week.

  3. Francois — I think you’ve got a point about the “practice” or “performance” of a text resulting in a deeper memory of its details, and I think this is where my question about a shift in pedagogy comes in. My senior colleagues were generally educated at a time when memorization was still in vogue, and I think the mind trained to memorize becomes more adept at such tasks than one that has not been. (Obviously.) But I think your sense that this performance of the text can take other forms than memorization explains the ways that the odd details of novels that I’ve written about do adhere to my otherwise teflon-coated brain…

    Matt — How strange. It can’t be my system, because Unfogged’s TB worked; it can’t be yours, because your TB of Jason’s comments worked. Thanks for the note, anyhow.

    Amar — Good to hear from you! Far be it from me to suggest any such impairment on the part of my senior colleagues, particularly at a career hoop-jumping point as laden with import as the one at which I currently find myself. My colleagues, all of them, have nothing of the idiot about them, but are savant, savant, savant, all the way.

    But it’s still a comforting theory nonetheless: memory like that must be a sign of madness, one not visited upon the fortunately sane like me.

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