Literary Memory

Ian Crouch reflects on his tendency to read voraciously, only to completely forget books shortly after:

This forgetting has serious consequences—but it has superficial ones as well, mostly having to do with vanity. It has led, at times, to a discomfiting situation, call it the Cocktail Party Trap (though this suggests that I go to many cocktail parties, which is itself a fib). Someone mentions a book with some cachet that I’ve read—a lesser-known work of a celebrated writer, say Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” to take an example from my shelf—and I smile knowingly, and maybe add, “It’s wonderful,” or some such thing. Great so far, I’m part of the in-crowd—and not lying; I did read it. But then there’s a moment of terror: What if the person summons up a question or comment with any kind of specificity at all? Basically, what if she aims to do anything other than merely brag about having read “Daniel Deronda”? Uh-oh. It’s about mining, right? Maybe blurt something about that. No, wait, that’s Gaskell’s “North and South.” I must either vaguely agree with what she says, hoping she isn’t somehow putting me on or lying herself, or else confess everything, with some version of the conversation killer: “I read that entire novel and now can tell you nothing of any consequence about it.” Or else slink away, muttering about needing to refill a drink.