Since I started reading more than 50 books a year I stopped remembering what actually happened in them. Character names, plot points, who did what to whom and why, these things float into the ether within weeks of finishing a book.
Every single time. Without fail.
I read The Orenda when it came out a few years ago and absolutely loved it. I mean, I loved that book. It’s one of my favorite pieces of Canadian fiction. Now, I can’t even tell you the names of the characters. Not a single one. I could pick them out of a lineup, sure, but as for instant recall, I got nuthin’.
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay is my third favorite book of all time. I can name two characters in it off the top of my head. That’s insane.
This is something that’s bothered me for quite a while. Am I reading too many books? Am I not absorbing them the way I should be? Do I need to read fewer books, more slowly, to really squeeze the juice out of them? I was starting to think so.
And then I listened to the August 21st episode of The Watch podcast, “Critiquing ‘Game of Thrones’ and Previewing the Fall TV Season”. On it, TV critic extraordinaire Andy Greenwald talked about how the details of a piece of art aren’t important, or, at least, they’re less important than the feeling that piece of art leaves you with.
Instantly, I felt better.
“We don’t really care about whodunnit, why they dunnit, the details. We joke all the time about James Crumley, one of our favorite novelists … I don’t know what happens in those books and I’ve read them five times. I don’t care. It’s about the characters, it’s about the vibe. It’s about the overall experience of reading this book.”
Andy’s right. The details are absolutely secondary to the way a book makes you feel, how it makes you think, how it changes you once you’ve read it. This reminded me about one of my favorite scenes from last year’s Captain Fantastic. In it, Viggo Mortenson’s character asks his young daughter what the book she’s reading is about.
Father: What are you reading?
Father: I didn’t assign that book.
Daughter: I’m skipping ahead.
Daughter: It’s interesting.
Father: Interesting is a non-word. You know you’re supposed to avoid it. Be specific.
Daughter: …It’s disturbing.
Father: More specific.
Daughter: Can I just read?
Father: After you give us your analysis thus far.
Daughter: There’s this old man who loves this girl, and she’s only 12 years old…
Father: That’s the plot.
She then goes on to describe what the book is about. How it made her feel, how she sympathizes with this character even though he is a pedophile even though she hates him at the same time.
That’s what reading Lolita is about. It’s not about who said what or who did this or that. That’s just plot. And plot is just the thread between the stuff we actually care about.
So even if I don’t remember the details, I don’t care. I remember the important things, like how I felt, how I changed, and how it made me think.