Thursday, October 11, 2007

Textual Memory

I've spent the last two days exploring an new Facebook application, Visual Bookshelf, that's been surprisingly apt at triggering my memories: all it is at heart is a database for storing all the books I've read, but it's given me a different way to think about my reading. I have an easier time remembering those books that I devoured in youth than the books I've read over the last few years. Of the hundreds of titles I've uncovered just wandering about and trying to remember my past favorites, most are picture books or children's fantasy novels.

Perhaps the most disturbing part has been trying to recognize the covers that I remember so clearly in the modernized rereleases of most of the "classic" children's books--though that's at least more heartening than seeing other books I grew up loving, like The Last Elegant Bear and Amy's Eyes, that have fallen so from the world that even Amazon can't bring up an image of their covers anymore. Some of the titles leap to mind as I delve further into the virtual bookshelf, like Dragonsong or The Power of the Rellard. I remember little stories... like trying to find my own copy of The Power of the Rellard after checking it out of the library almost constantly for years to read the story of a crippled girl who comes into tune with a strange natural force. I finally asked one summer at a used book store in California if they could hunt it down, but before I talked my parents into forking out the fees for the search I happened across the book in a remainder bin at a Books a Million of all places. [This was before the days of point and click used book internet surpluses, which have sadly made great quests for a remembered book obsolete].

There are books just beneath the surface of my memory that I still can't find, like a series of science fiction novels involving a girl and psychic struggles that I could have sworn was by Anne McCaffrey or a story of a rat living in the sewers with a matchbox for a bed...

Then there are the books long forgotten that suddenly emerge full-thrust into my brain at the sight of the cover unwittingly pulled up through the library's recommendation feature, like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and Mr. Popper's Penguins. How could I have forgotten those? I must have read them each more times than any book I've picked up as an "adult." Or what about The Cricket in Times Square? When I saw the picture of the cover of that story--a cover that was so perfect it's been spared the changes of time--the big city adventures of Chester the Cricket and Tucker the Mouse seem like they were part of my life only yesterday.

There's some memories that are so old I didn't know I still could call them up: like my old school addiction to John Bellairs's children's horror novels, long forgotten. I stopped reading them years and years ago when I read one called "The Eyes of the Killer Robot" and couldn't get the memory of the robot out of my head. I hid the novel under the sink downstairs so I wouldn't have to keep it in my room, and I never read them again. With a click of a mouse I can have another copy sent to me...I might cave to that particular impulse. I'd like to know why it left such a mark on my psyche.

The pictures come to my mind and disappear faster than the search engine works. I find myself wishing for a search engine that would let me type queries like "that book with two women, one a mage, one a warrior, sworn to the same bloodoath quest in a strangely dark universe that bears no resemblance to Xena, Warrior Princess, I swear." I'd love to put my own memories on a data network in searchable form, and figure out more of the patterns of the memory. I'd like to see the day of reading books hidden in my texts through class after class that links a glimpse of a familiar pattern of equations with Raistlin Magere's haunting golden hourglass eyes. [I went back to visit one of my science teachers from middle school and to judge their science fair a few years back. She still remembered me as the girl she constantly caught reading books during the lecture. Eventually she'd given up on stopping me.]

I found the Anne McCaffrey science fiction novels only because the cover--The Rowan--hasn't changed. I still can't remember what happened within them, even though I must have read them all a dozen times and even checked out the books on tape over and over again. The covers tell me absolutely nothing, just beautiful women sitting alone in graceful poses on each sequel, looking defiant and inscrutable. Another remembered story I may have to visit as an adult.

When old stories come through my dreams each night I never know where they come *from*, but I sometimes feel the threads of old stories--of mice come to life and organized for battle, of children hiding in libraries, of closet doors that contain whole worlds. I know there was a book where a boy ordered mail order wings. He painstakingly assembled them and flew across the world only to learn that the price of wings was gradual transformation away from humanity. [This book I still can't find, much to my dismay. When armed with neither title nor author, I can't even expect the "Visual Bookshelf" to be of much use.] There was another book about a girl captured by another Indian--I suppose the PC term is Native American, back when I learned it we still said Indian--tribe who runs back across the country to her own people. That book I found--Naya Nuki, Girl Who Ran. I don't think I have it anymore, though I remember where I got it, in the small children's section of the UCSD bookstore. These stories, of escape and flight and transformation, these still shape my dreams.

I recognize the fragments even though I've long forgotten the whole.

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