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Lingering memories of literature tell only part of the story

There's a novel on my bookshelf called Cannibals, written by an Irish writer called Dan Collins.

It was published around 2002 and I must have read it shortly after that. I clearly liked it enough not to get rid of it once I'd read it, but ask me about it now and I'd be struggling. I know it was a short book, it was mostly (maybe totally) set in hotel rooms and I know I enjoyed it. But beyond that I'm struggling. Now, I admit I have a terrible memory, but I suspect this is not so uncommon an experience among readers.

I found Cannibals the other night while looking for something else and since then I've been thinking about the afterlife of books, the marks they leave in our heads. I suppose it's inevitable we read much more than we retain. How many books can we truly say we know? I guess I still have reasonably decent recall of Thomas Hardy's Return Of The Native because I studied it at school (though that was an awful long time ago now) and I'd be reasonably confident about being quizzed about Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby because I've probably read it more than any other book. Then again, I've read Chandler's The Long Goodbye a number of times and I like it a lot, but the Chandler sequence I remember is the bit in The Big Sleep where Marlowe hitches a lift and gets one from the killer.

Beyond the last few books I've spent time with, what can I safely say about anything I've read? When did I last read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre? I know I think they're both strange, unruly masterpieces but can I now say with any confidence why that might be?

Then there are other bits and pieces of stories that swirl around my consciousness with little connection to their source. Some time in my teens I recall reading a science-fiction short story about a space flight (possibly by Arthur C Clarke; he was my entry drug to the genre) and the only thing that has stayed with me was the idea of the astronauts shaving in space, their bristles floating around in zero gravity. Why did that detail stay with me (for three decades or more) when everything else about the story has fallen away?

Douglas Coupland – if I'm remembering rightly (clearly, as I probably have established by now, not something you can rely on) – perhaps best summed up this whole process of how stories settle in our minds. What we retain of books, he once suggested, was the perfume of them. I like that idea. I like the idea that some sense memory of a book is what lingers with you. I can't tell you what happens in every short story by the great ghost story writer MR James but I can tell you about the damp, musty, rotting atmosphere you can find in them, their taint of graveyard earth.

Coupland's idea could explain, too, why there are some books, some writers, you just don't take to. Of late, I've been reading A Model World, an early book of short stories by the American writer Michael Chabon and, for some reason I can't quite explain, I haven't warmed to it. I can see the care and craft in the writing, Chabon is roughly the same age as me and we share many of the same literary interests. Yet there's some woody bass note in his prose that just doesn't work for me, that somehow irritates my literary olfactory system.

Memories fade but the books remain, of course. Like that Dan Collins book (which really is very good, I'm pretty sure), they're still there on the bookshelf. And if we want to be reacquainted with their perfume, all that's required is to take them down, open their pages and inhale. So if you want to know more about Cannibals, ask me next week.

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