I once began watching a film I had felt was important for me to see. Universally acclaimed to a level seldom seen, it was a cinematic box I knew I needed to have checked, a head to mount.
The film opens with a live performance of some theatrical dance piece, very arty, very heavy. It’s entirely unexpected as the opening of a movie.
But it shouldn’t have been, because I’d seen it before. The film was Talk to Her, and it turned out that I had completely forgotten I’d already seen it. And fairly recently, having watched it with someone and discussed it. At some point, I’d lost this memory, and only recalled that this was one the Movies I’m Supposed to See. Needing to check the box, I’d missed that the box was already filled.
So goodness knows how many other films I’ve forgotten I’ve seen. And if I can forget films, even really, really good ones, I can probably forget books, which is about 50 times as tragic.
Ian Crouch at the New Yorker discovered this problem.
This embarrassing situation raises practical questions that also become ones about identity: Do I really like reading? Perhaps it is a failure of attention—there are times when I notice my own distraction while reading, and can, in a way, feel myself forgetting. There is a scarier question, one that might seem like asking if one is good at breathing, or walking. Am I actually quite bad at reading after all?
Same here. I’m too consumed with needing to have read the book, that I sometimes fair poorly at the actual reading. And then I need to read something about what I’ve read just to understand it in a meaningful way.
So, if it’s a problem, why not just read or watch things again? More from Crouch:
Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse.
For films, too. That’s two or so hours you know you’re going to sit passively, and be at the sensorial mercy of others. If you’ve seen a movie already, and don’t crave to re-experience it, there are countless others that await.
But there is no doubt with me, as with Crouch, too much of an emphasis on the completed-work-as-trophy, building one’s Sophisticated Person credentials. Though there is some merit to feeling at least a little beholden to that made-up standard: I gets me to read and see things I might otherwise neglect due to laziness. Moderation is the key, I suppose, in everything.