The Fine Art of Re-reading Books

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Considering memory loss in the new issue of Urbanite, Richard O’Mara stumbles upon a surprising way to drum up long-buried memories: Re-read a book (in his case, by accident), and uncover a vivid impression of your life at the time of the initial reading.

For O’Mara, it’s The Black Obelisk, a book published in 1956 by the German author Erich Maria Remarque (best known in the States for All Quiet on the Western Front). O’Mara picks it up a bookstore: “I loved it for the first sixty pages–at which point I realized that I had loved it before, forty-odd years ago.”

It was in 1964; I was seated at a café by a beach in Argentina, hearing Vaughn Monroe’s voice pour out of a scratchy loudspeaker, singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” A wild storm broke over the town of Miramar that night, where we were staying, my wife and I and our new daughter. I recalled hearing the waves crump like mortar shells on the beach.

Why, I asked myself, had I not retrieved these memories before? Why had I let them lie there, darkened by the decades that had fallen over them like soot? My mind, or the office within it responsible for organizing and filing memories, apparently decided to lock away those recollections for good. It took the late Herr Remarque to spring them. That these memories had nothing to do with the book itself suggests that anything buried deep in the brain, when dredged up, can have clinging to it things that have nothing to do with the object recovered.


Image by Gibson Claire McGuire Regester, licensed under Creative Commons.

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