Sunday, May 28, 2017

Novels, memory triggers, and your personal “story track”

I’m certainly not the only person who has memory triggers associated with pop songs—and many of these memories are highly specific.

For example, every time I hear John Lennon’s ballad, “Woman”, I am transported to a long-ago skating rink. It is early winter, 1980. The overhead lights are making kaleidoscopic patterns on the hardwood floor. I am a somewhat clumsy seventh-grade boy trying to stay on my feet. (I never did master roller skates, by the way.)

Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” takes me to an eighth-grade sock-hop, January of 1982. 

That was an extremely cold winter that set records in Ohio. I can still remember the way my skin stung as I walked out of the school cafeteria, and into the frigid night air. I remembering smoking a cigarette with some other boys in the freezing parking lot. (That was easier than getting up the gumption to ask a girl to dance.)

One more: Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” catapults me to a gloriously warm, sunny afternoon in the spring of 1983. I’m standing in the parking lot of my high school. I’m a freshman. An older boy (I can still remember his name, but I won’t mention it here) is carrying a boombox with the song playing. (Note to readers under thirty: Boomboxes were the iPods of the pre-digital era.)

And so on…

But what about books? For me, at least, certain books have almost the same power to pull me into the hazy realm of memory, and often with equal specificity. 

I will always remember the summer of 1979 in terms of two book series.

First there were The Great Brain books. These were written by John Dennis Fitzgerald at mid-century, and aimed at preteen boys. (I was 11 years old in 1979, so they perfectly fit me.) 

There was also Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. This was another series written for adolescents, by Robert Arthur, Jr.  As the name implies, it is a mystery series. Somewhat to my dismay, I had never been able to get into The Hardy Boys. I was therefore glad to find Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, which was much faster-paced, and peopled with far more engaging characters. 

I read every title in the series that I could lay my hands on that summer, which was most of them. My mom, who always encouraged my love of reading, drove me around to bookstores, local libraries, and even garage sales. 

I recently reread Stephen King’s vampire novel, Salem’s Lot. This one took me back to my first reading of the book, in the winter of 1984 (another very harsh winter throughout most of the United States). I picked up a copy of the book up from my school library on a whim. I was blown away. For two or three days, Salem’s Lot completely consumed me. I went on that year to read everything King had published to that point. 

One more from my high school days: Watership Down. Throughout the summer of 1986, I was working on a landscaping crew. A good part of each day consisted of riding around in a truck. During these periods, I had plenty of time for reading. Watership Down is the book I most recall from that summer, most of which I spent walking behind a big industrial lawnmower. 

Okay, enough of my childhood. I’m forty-nine, for goodness sake. I recall reading Lonesome Dove during a long flight to Japan (is there any other kind of flight to Japan?) in 2009. I was well into middle age by 2009.

If you’ve ever read Lonesome Dove, you’ll know that it’s a huge, sprawling story that you can get lost in—perfect for a long trip on an airplane. (And if you haven't read Lonesome Dove, you should get the book and read it now.)

In the summer of 2014, I was sitting in a hospital waiting room, anxious to hear how my mother’s heart surgery went. I was very tense about the outcome. To distract myself and pass the time, I read Frederick Forsyth’s spy novel, The Odessa File. Whenever I see a copy of that book, either online or in the real world, I am taken back to that waiting room. It was a bad time, but the book helped pass the hours. 

To return to my original metaphor of pop songs: I’ve often heard people speak of the music of their adolescent and early adult years as the “soundtrack” of their youth. In a similar way, perhaps the books that we love form a sort of “story track” for our lives. 

Good books have enhanced my life in happy times, helped me through challenging times, and provided a narrow margin of escape when my situation seemed really, really bad. 

It is no surprise that I have distinct, real-life memories associated only with the books that I loved. I’ve read hundreds, maybe thousands of books in my life. (Like I said, I’m now pushing fifty.) But the vast majority of these books do not have specific memories attached. 

I might be able to tell you that I read this book (probably) during high school, or that book (maybe) during my twenties. But if I can readily associate a book with a unique moment in my personal history, it’s because the book made a deep impression on me. Only the truly memorable books make their way into the “story track” of my life.

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