Friday, April 17, 2015

How Does a Book Actually Work?

William Randolph Hearst, yellow journalist.

Zach Neal

How does a book actually work, anyway?

Nobody really seems to know, or if they do, it’s a highly-technical process description not well suited to lay men and women.

The brain, or mind, has working memory. It is a kind of short-term memory.

When we read, we process that information. That processing is what brings the book to life and makes pictures and what passes for sound begin to appear in our head.

It seems to me that reading is a process of short term or working memory. What part of the brain it happens in is a secondary question. The thing is that short term memory is much more plastic than long term memory. It gets wiped regularly, using the mechanism of sleep. Once something has made it into long term memory, it's usually stuck there pretty good.

If you can remember a book, something like Winnie the Pooh, that’s from our youth most likely. I don’t recall a single line from the book, and yet I know that I have read it…

That’s long-term memory. I have stuff labeled Winnie the Pooh filed away in there somewhere.

Once something is in long-term memory, it’s never really lost to us, although we may not remember it ever again. It’s still in there.

I saw someone in the grocery store today. They have one distinctive feature. The lady, about forty years old, had long, lush, curling eyelashes. She has other features as well, and for whatever reason I was looking at her.

It struck me later that it might have been Alice—someone I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. 

We didn’t recognize each other, not at the time. Those other features (as I remembered them from the past) matched up, when I thought about it, with what she might look like twenty years later.

I’m one of those people who are pretty good with names and faces.

I really had to think about it. I had to dig for it—and it could have been her. What really struck me was that she was looking at me. Was she digging in her memory, trying to figure out who that guy was? Honestly, I doubt if she’s thought of me since that time in college. We were just somebody in class. It’s not like we ever spoke much, or got to know each other. The human brain is hard-wired to recognize faces. That goes back a million years in our programming. The ability to read came much later in evolution

Memory is reconstructive. Some little thing jogs our memory and a lot more stuff comes tumbling out.

When I read a book, it’s usually at night, before I go to bed. During the day, that book is the farthest thing from my mind.

Right now I’m reading Gore Vidal’s Empire. It happens in about 1899.

It’s just after the Spanish-American war. The only reason I can tell you that, is because I’ve been working on the book for a few days. When I pick it up again, it sort of all comes back to me, and there are reminders on every page, who the characters are, the time, the place, the circumstances. What’s happening, is that I am learning, rather than just reading. Much of learning does involve repetition. Reading can be for pleasure, and that kind of reading is shallower, more transient. It’s gone as fast as it came in. Stuff that you know, has entered the long-term memory. Ten years from now, if you ask me, I will be able to tell you that Empire is by Gore Vidal and that it’s about the period just after the Spanish-American War. Carolyn and her brother Blaise are at odds over her inheritance.

I don’t have to look at the book to tell you that—I’ve learned it and the odds are I will be able to recall some of that later. There are some interesting character studies in the book, including President McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst among others.

The thing to remember is that the reader forgets what they just read as they move along in the story.

Whatever is happening on the page they are reading, that is ‘the moment’ for the reader. It takes on a reality of its own, settles into our memories and becomes a kind of shared experience. That’s because someone had to write it and plenty of other people have read it. 

Some books are not intellectual heavyweights. They are meant to be consumed as fluff, as entertainment. In a genre that is more than usually formulaic, for example romance, people aren’t looking to have their world questioned, or any great revelation. What they want is escape. They want to be entertained in a way that is not particularly challenging.

The easiest thing to remember is the story. There was a book I read as a kid. I will never find that book again, because I have forgotten the title, forgotten the author, forgotten the name of the main character.

Yet I can still tell you that it was about a boy, and his cousin. They had a series of adventures at the time of the siege of Fort Beausejour. It was the time of the removal of the Acadians. The boy had a sailing dory and they had named it Ann. The cousin’s name was Pierre. Since the boy was the viewpoint character, his name was probably not mentioned very often, if at all. Otherwise I probably would have remembered it.

His father was a Captain Harvey (I think) of the 40th Foot.

The average reader, immersed in the story, perhaps halfway through the book, might completely forget a character introduced earlier on until they reappear. For someone who reads a book in one sitting, that character pops out and they say, ‘oh, there he is again.’ Yet they are just as likely to forget him as soon as he’s gone again. Reading an entire book at one sitting uses short-term memory exclusively. What’s interesting is when you’re reading an old book. Agatha Christie is a good example. Publishers over the years have re-titled and re-branded those books so many times. You get to a certain part of the story and you realize you’ve read it before.

And yet you can’t quite remember what happens, you can’t remember how it turns out.

The opposite kind of reading is where people are forced to read books over and over again in order to memorize and recite them. It’s obviously a different skill from reading for pleasure, or even the more normal forms of reading for instruction. When I want to learn a new thing, it’s like I have to read it fifteen times sometimes, and then keep it beside me while I attempt any new trick or skill. It is only when I can do it without the book beside me, that I can truly say I have learned it.


1 comment: