The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

in the dark

Quid, cum fictas fabulas, e quibus utilitas nulla elici potest, cum voluptate legimus? quid, cum volumus nomina eorum, qui quid gesserint, nota nobis esse, parentes, patriam, multa praeterea minime necessaria?

But what of fiction, from which no utility can be extracted, that we read for pleasure? What of our eagerness to learn the names of people who have done something notable, their parentage, birthplace, and many quite unimportant details beside?

—Cicero (De finibus…, trans. Rackham, 5.52)1

It was dark as I returned home from my morning run. Around quarter to five is when I head out, and the effort grounds the remainder of the day, makes anything that happens more explicable. But that is not to the point. It was dark, I say, as I was walking home, and in the amiable glow of soreness, I was thinking about Shelley Trower’s article on reading and forgetfulness2 from the 2020 issue of Book History. The article presents some of the findings for a part of the Memories of Fiction project, a qualitative study of ‘reading lives’ based on interviews with participants in library reading groups.3 Trower focuses particularly on the prevalence of forgetting what one has read, its causes and consequences, and what it means for reading as such. A key point of the article was that, although many of the respondents did not have clear memories of the individual books they had read, they did have very distinct memories of instances of reading and the associated sensations – a window streaked with rain, a sunny field, a comfortable chair, etc.

As I avoided stumbling on cracks in the sidewalk heaved up by the roots of trees, I was troubled by two things: first, the selection bias in the study population, and second, the precarity of interviews as a source of data, particularly about information the subject has forgotten. As to the first concern, library readings groups draw a particular sort of reader, one who is not necessarily equivalent to the readers found in other groups or to the reader in isolation; this difficulty is not avoidable (one can imagine the principal investigator sighing: ‘How else are we going to define our study population? Do you really imagine we have the funding to explore the universal common reader?’), and although a source of minor irritation, one can set it to one side.

It is the season when nuts and other fruits are falling from the trees, and certain corners must be approached with caution. I skirted the shadows cast by the hulk of a walnut tree as I pondered the second point, which I suppose consists of several subpoints – indeed, too many subpoints to articulate fully to oneself during one’s predawn perambulations.4 Some of them were:

As I approached the final block towards home, the first glimmering of dawn behind me, the neighbor’s black cat skittered along the sidewalk, nervously running up to me and then slipping away, reduced to two points of brightness as it turned to watch me. I gave it a scritch before it disappeared up the stairs and quite forgot what I had been thinking about.

  1. Some slight modifications, to ensure the inclusion of pleasure. []
  2. Paywalled, my apologies. []
  3. There has been the expected linkrot throughout the site, so the interviews are perhaps less accessible than they were intended to be. []
  4. Indeed, most of them were not in fact articulated at all, but swirled uneasily, inchoate and only half recalled. []
  5. I am thinking here particularly of a conversation I had with an acquaintance at a post office, when I responded to the question ‘what have you been reading lately?’ with ‘nothing much’, which wasn’t really true, but was true enough in the sense that I hadn’t read anything I wanted to talk about while waiting in line at the post office. []
  6. Although it was not explicitly mentioned if fieldwork as such was involved, it would also have been interesting to know if the researchers had participated in the book groups as well, as that might have improved their rapport with their subjects, which seemed, based on the limited excerpts, somewhat shaky. Naturally, that could cause its own problems. []
  7. I am not being fair to it, I’m sure. Sometimes (often) one isn’t fair to things one reads, and that says nothing about the value of either the text or the reader; well, very little, anyway. []


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