Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lost in a book

Here is a strange little story related to the post I wrote about two weeks ago in relation to reading novels on e-book readers. Having finished reading Little Dorrit and having slurped up both movie versions (each best in its own way), and having gone through the customary refractory period (for respect and reflection), I was now ready to read another novel.

I looked in the Dickens collection on my e-book reader. While watching the film adaptations of Little Dorrit, I had noticed two film adaptations of Bleak House on Netflix. I love book-film combinations, so Bleak House seemed a good choice for my next reading adventure.

As I began to read, a curious sensation stole over me. The people and places seemed strangely familiar, like things I'd seen in a dream. I was sure I'd never read Bleak House before. But might I have read something like it?

With each page the feeling grew. I found myself recognizing little visual particulars in some of the scenes -- a man in a coach, a girl standing in front of a fence, a rag-and-bone shop, a bare attic room, birds in cages, twisting staircases. I became convinced that I must have at least started the book before, because why else would these images seem so familiar? But even as I kept recognizing fragmented images, I could not guess at what might possibly come next, or even whether I had read what came next. I could not guess whether the characters I saw were central or peripheral to the plot. I asked myself: Who and what is Bleak House about? What is its point? What does it mean? How does it end? Did I read the whole thing? I had no idea. It was unsettling, uncanny, even frightening. It was like one of those dreams where you are frantically trying to call home but can't remember your own number.

I've now come to the conclusion that I must have read Bleak House within the past two years, since that is how long I've had my e-book reader. But I still can't recall reading it or anything about it. It's all new to me, even though it's familiar. By the way, it is highly unlikely that I would have read a bit of the book and stopped; that's not how I read. I would have finished it. I always do.

You know what it feels like to be in pain, right? Have you ever felt the other sort of pain? The pain that says to you, not "ouch that hurts" but "hey stop doing that"? The kind that tells you something has broken inside? The kind that, if you are paying attention to yourself, stops you from getting more seriously hurt? I remember the first time I felt that sort of message-pain. It was when I was in the high school band. I had carried my sousaphone for hours and hours one day, and the pain in my shoulder went from "ouch" to "hey you" status. I knew I needed to put down the sousaphone or damage my shoulder, so I obeyed the command. I've felt that sort of pain only a handful of times since, but I know it when I feel it. Probably you do too.

When I was reading Bleak House, apparently now for the second time, I felt the same kind of sensation. It was not exactly pain, but it was a message coming from somewhere in my brain. The message was: "I cannot do what you would like me to do. Something is broken in here. Would you please stop doing what caused this?" I felt that I was getting a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to lose your mind. The machine was breaking down.

I read Nicholas Nickleby when I was a teenager, and I can still remember its main characters and plot, if indistinctly and based more on emotion than fact. And I of course do remember that I read Nicholas Nickleby. I was upset before because I couldn't remember Chekhov's short stories. But those were short stories, and there were more than 200 of them. I can accept forgetting them, or at least some of them. But forgetting an entire novel? The thing is nearly a thousand pages long. It must have taken weeks to read, in the bits of free time I have available. How can I retrieve no memory of it? Are e-books really that bad? This is not looking out of a little window at a vast landscape and remembering only the window. This is forgetting the entire journey.

Here is one more little piece to this story. Last week I was writing to a colleague about the issue of managing motherhood and career, and I wanted to send her a funny scene about a mother who is enthusiastic about helping people in Africa but ignores her own children. I could not recall where I'd found this. I could only recall an image of a Victorian parlor filled with tumbling children and scattered papers. My best guess was Edith Nesbit's Five Children And It, so I went poking about in that book, and then in all the other Nesbit books I've read (note, all on the e-book reader). It wasn't in any of them. I began to think I'd seen it in an old movie, or it might have been in something I read about Edith Nesbit herself (who famously wrote books for children while ignoring her own). I finally gave up and didn't send anything.

Can you guess what I found in Bleak House? The scene I was looking for. In a book I had forgotten I'd read. If someone had said to me, oh that scene is in Bleak House, I would have said, Bleak House? I've never read that. The scene was in my memory, and connected to the motherhood-career theme. But it was completely unconnected to any sense of an overall story or reading experience related to Bleak House, which apparently is not to be found anywhere in there. If my memory is a library, the Bleak House book never got bound. Its pages lie scattered in rooms and shelves and tucked into other books far from where it (I find myself having always to add "apparently") entered the library.

I'm still reading Bleak House on the e-book reader, as a sort of experiment to see if at some tipping point I will suddenly remember the rest of the story and the Bleak House book will fly together and bind itself in my mind. But this may be the last e-book I ever read. After a scare like this, it's back to paper for me.

I can't help but wonder how many other people might have broken their reading machines without knowing it. Could this be a larger problem? Could we be breaking the reading machine on a societal level? Now that's a scary thought.

[Update: It's now the next evening, and I've just come from reading another chapter of Bleak House. In it I found a ghost story with such rich imagery that I could never have got past it without tucking it away somewhere. So my new reconstruction (as of this evening) is that I must not have finished Bleak House. I'm wondering if I tried to take it up in the post-Dostoyevsky mourning period, when nothing seemed good enough, only to cast it off. I would never do such a thing except under extreme conditions of literary grief. My response to this discovery was partly "Oh crap, I made such a big thing of forgetting this whole novel and now I find out it's not true, I must look awfully stupid" and partly "Ah, this deepens the problem, and how sage I must look because I've now shown I was able to convince myself of a lie!" So choose which you like best. I'm for the sage one. If I can convince myself equally well of having read a book and not having read a book, it still doesn't bode well for the future of e-book reading. In my bathtub anyway.]

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