Friday, May 3, 2013

Reading Memory

As a remainder wholesaler I used to receive samples from publishers. These were books they wanted to remainder entirely or just reduce inventory. Some of them stayed on my shelves and, after so many years, I go back and read them or just look at them from time to time.

Lately I have been drawn to The Telling of The World: Native American Stories and Art, edited by W.S. Penn. I really don't remember exactly when I received the sample. It was published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in 1996, so I can guess it was  between 1997 and 1999 when I had a wholesale company in Cold Spring, New York.

It now peers out at me from a shelf about a foot below eye level, across my office from where I sit at my desk. The jacket is beautifully illustrated with a painting by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. The book is shelved so I see about one inch of this beautiful painting, while the part of the jacket covering the spine is  set simply in a lightly seriffed font. It is shelved between a fat old brick from Larousse on Byzantine & medieval art and a badly worn copy of Italian Art by Andre Chastel, which I remember reading on my subway commute just after we moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan and I was still working at the Strand. 1986?

When I see these books on my shelves, they connect me to memories and moments in time, even if I never opened the book. Many years ago I went through a few months reading everything by Joseph Conrad I could find. Then I stopped. I have a copy of Almayer's Folly that I bought from Avol's in Madison, Wisconsin, so long ago that Richard Avol still owned it, before he sold and moved away (to open another bookstore, of course). This was published in 1921 by Doubleday & Page. It is yellowed, there is no jacket, and it feels fragile. I never got back to Joseph Conrad, so this remains on my to-read shelf, and only Richard Avol knows for how many decades.

Looking at The Telling of the World, I think of the parables, stories, biographical sketches and paintings bound between those covers. There is a Native American (Aztec?) story reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, where people no longer can understand the animals after the tower is destroyed.

I also think of how hard those years were for me. Being a remainder wholesaler means buying huge numbers of books on spec. One needs great intestinal fortitude, good luck, smarts, and huge reserves of cash and credit. I was long on the intestinal part, quite short on the rest. After losing almost everything, I went to work for others in 1999 and only got back into business for myself again a few years ago.

For me, these connections between physical books and memory are unique experiences. I might look at another object or walk into a room and suddenly remember feelings or experiences, but books are so much more in my mind. These are the kinds of things that are so hard to explain to a digitally oriented person. They would either see it as analogous to other sensory-memory experiences (yes, smelling fresh bread baking makes me remember my mother), or, more likely, view the entire idea as a waste of time, not worth thinking about.

I'm having a hard time writing this and I don't think I've come close to expressing what I am thinking (I am just a sales rep, after all), but suffice it to say that there is a book-memory-mind-experience connection or network of connections that is in our DNA and can't be replaced by anything else, certainly not by e-readers. This is something that can't be explained or justified or recommended to people who have not experienced it, but if you can get them reading physical books, they get it. Then maybe one of them can explain it to me.

Or maybe we are now two different animals that can no longer understand each other.