Reading, Place and Memory

girl in hammock

I’m not certain if this is a wide-ranging phenomenon or simply a strange working of my own mind, but I find that whether I’ve read them yet or not, my memory has irrevocably connected some books to certain physical places.

For many titles, the physical place in question is the store or city in which I bought my copy of the book  — Flight by Sherman Alexie from City Lights in San Francisco, The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman from The Book Beat in Oak Park, Michigan (hand sold to me by one of their staff when I was still an adolescent), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell  by Susanna Clarke, the first book I picked up in the store I would later work at in Boston.

For other books, the place in question is where I read the book — The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin at my family’s cottage on the lake, The Decameron by Boccaccio in a hammock on a porch during that summer I worked at a family camp, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey while travelling on my first big overseas trip (I remember I spent almost a whole day holed up in a hotel, eating pizza and reading in order to recover from a week long bus tour).

What intrigues me about these connections is that, in many cases, the memory associated with the physical copy of the book is stronger than my memory of the book’s actual contents, both characters and plot. This leads me to believe that these memories are not really about the individual books, but are instead about a more general joy in reading — moments of connection between an activity I love and a particularly exciting or happy time in my life (e.g. time spent travelling or time spent with family and friends). These connections help to reinforce the power of books as objects, as touchstones to key moments across the span of our lives. This may be one of the reasons I find it so hard to part with books, even ones I suspect I’ll never re-read. Their spines, sitting there in a row on the shelf, have become another kind of photo album.

Liz Gillett


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