Is there any point reading books? OK, don’t all shout at once and, please, just bear with me a minute. This is the time of year when all the newspapers – well, in the northern hemisphere – start printing their summer reading lists, those piles of books that are supposed to entertain you, inform you and get you set for the next six months.
I’m a sucker for these lists and am equally seduced by a well-judged bookshop window display. Yes, I need a primer on Roman history, a slightly saucy romper and a killer thriller to get me through my poolside ardours. Load me up. Indeed over many summers my bookshelves have become crammed with suntan-oil-stained novels and they are now also arranged as tottering piles on the floor. I like books. Why, however, I am not so sure.
Last week I was looking for something new to read having made a few unwise purchases at McNally Jackson in New York (a book shop that is so delicious you can end up buying stuff that isn’t quite as enjoyable as making the purchase). Anyway, there was nothing new in the house, so I decided to reread something I had loved first time around. And there was Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell, a sort of bedroom farce set at a time in London I know oddly well.
I settled down on the sofa and within minutes what struck me was that I couldn’t remember any of it. Chapters seemed familiar but the characters were like people once met many years ago – while drunk. I’d forgotten their names, their foibles, their predilections, their capacity for cruelty and wit. If you had asked me to summarise what I could recall about the book I would have been pressed to fill a Post-it note. And I mean one of those mini ones.
When I look along the shelves in my home the book spines are actually just a mystery parade of forgotten tales, lost facts and how-tos never achieved. And I am not alone. There are numerous websites dotted with queries like this: “I cannot remember anything about this book but I loved it,” or, “I read a book but cannot remember the author or title but a woman walks through heaven,” and this, “I think it was the best book that I have read but cannot remember anything about it.”
You can also find all sorts of people admitting, including clever types, to literary amnesia. There are even good quotes on the topic like this from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” I think he means clever rather than fat.
The odd thing is that I can remember where I read most books – and not just by the sand that drifts out of them. And I guess that’s why I will still want a pile of novels by my lounger this summer. In the end I am reading not for the writing or to gain knowledge or to look smart. But just for the experience – the desire to get lost. Plus what else would I rest the bottle of rosado on?