Friday, August 13, 2010

Existentialism in Reading (or WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!?)

"I went back to the sofa and started reading the rest of Anna Karenina. Until that reading, I hadn't realized how little I remembered of what goes on in the book. I recognized virtually nothing-- the characters, the scenes, nothing. I might as well have been reading a whole new book. How strange. I must have been deeply moved at the time I first read it, but now there was nothing left. Without my noticing, the memories of all the shuddering, soaring emotions had slipped away and vanished.
What, then, of the enormous fund of time I had consumed back then reading books? What had all that meant?"
-Haruki Murakami, "Sleep" from the short story collection The Elephant Vanishes

I read this short story my freshman year of college and this quote has haunted me ever since. There is a disturbing honesty behind it that I usually try to ignore. As a general rule, any book I've read more than three months ago becomes a blip on the radar. Even if I were asked now to compile a list of every book read so far this year, I would struggle in doing so. If prompted, I can recall general themes, or maybe a scene that I enjoyed, but usually this requires a long hard stare at the cover first or a brief skimming of the description on the back. I don't think I'd be able to name a single character from any of the books on my pick shelf by name.

I know I'm not alone, either. Many of our customers can't even keep track of which books they've read and which they haven't. Covers, titles, and authors all start blurring into one gray mass of literature.

So what, then, of the enormous fund of time I consume by reading books?
It took some thought, but I'm convinced that this time wasn't wasted. First and foremost, I love reading. And I would much rather not remember literary characters' names than not remember which episodes of Jershey Shore I've already seen.
Taking this even a step further, however, I may not remember a character's name, or even the general plot of a novel, but something sticks with me subconsciously each time I pick up a book. Murakami's short story "Sleep" is the perfect example. I have no idea what that story is about as a whole, or even most of the other stories in that collection. It's been three years since I picked that book up last and still the quote above stuck with me. It planted itself deep in my mind and that is something irreversible, even if I can't remember the name of the character who said it.


  1. Interesting point, Kelsey. The books--also relationships, places, etc..--that mean the most to us will always stick. I personally think it's okay if other things drift away; they served their purpose and our minds let them go.

    Since you mentioned it, I must admit that Jersey Shore is a guilty pleasure of mine, even though I can't remember anything that any of the "characters" said or did--within 5 minutes after the show has ended. What is the appeal of fast-food, mind candy?

    Sarah F.

  2. I really relate to your thoughts on remembering books. I have some "favorites" on my shelf that for the life of me I can't remember what the plot was about. I thought it was just me!

    Julie Magers Soulen Photography