Monday, April 25, 2011

“Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?”

A few months ago, I read an essay by James Collins, who wrote the novel Beginner’s Greek. Collins complains that a couple of years after reading a nonfiction book that he had read attentively and greatly enjoyed (Allen Weinstein’s  Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case), he could recall few specific details from the book—just “an atmosphere and a stray image or two, like memories of trips I took as a child.” Citing anecdotal evidence, he suggests that most readers, though not all, share his problem. That being the case—and let’s assume that it is the case, even if scientific evidence for the claim is nowhere to be found in the essay—Collins asks a very good question: “Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?”

There are many good answers to that question, and Collins offers a bunch of them. But some of the most interesting points in the piece are raised by Tufts University professor Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf assures Collins that even if it’s true that few facts from Perjury seem to be swimming around in his conscious brain, reading it was not a waste of his time. She talks about the act of reading as a process that creates pathways in the brain. “There is a difference between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge,” she tells him. “We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory.”

“Gestalt of knowledge” and “wraith of memory” are vague and not entirely satisfying terms. But they’re poetic and evocative, and I think you and I both know what Wolf is getting at.

I bring this up because I’m having a very agreeable “gestalt of knowledge” experience as I read Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, by Barbara Mertz. Barbara Mertz has written three books as Barbara Mertz, but she has written 19 Egyptological mysteries under the name Elizabeth Peters, 29 thrillers under the name Barbara Michaels, and a total of 70 books in all. She has a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago, and although she received her doctorate 59 years ago (she is 83) it’s obvious that she’s kept up with advances in the discipline. Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, first published in 1964 and revised in 2007, is an outstanding book: tremendously informative, beautifully written, witty, even saucy. Fans of her fiction probably wouldn’t be surprised by any of this, but never having read her fiction, I was very pleasantly surprised. Me of little faith.

Now, I’m not a complete novice when it comes to ancient Egypt. I took a course in ancient Egyptian history in the fall of 1973; the text for the course was Sir Alan Gardiner’s classic Egypt of the Pharaohs, supplemented by an elegantly concise chronological outline put together by the professor, Thomas Lambdin. I loved the course and did well in it, but by the time 3 or 4 years had passed, I remembered very little in the way of details.

Over 37 years have passed since I took Lambdin’s course. In the interim, I’ve probably read a few dozen newspaper and magazine articles having to do with Egyptian archaeology and history, but nothing of significant length or substance. Yet as I read along in Mertz’s book, I’m amazed at how familiar and comfortable it all feels. Many of the place and personal names were definitely tucked way back there in some deep recess of my brain, only to percolate into the domain of active consciousness once I started encountering them in Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. But I’m having to learn most of the chronology and the fine details of countless academic debates all over again.

That I can recall little from Lambdin’s lectures and almost nothing from Gardiner’s book seems beside the point now. In addition to the in-the-moment enjoyment and intellectual stimulation that I’m getting from reading Barbara Mertz, I’m re-experiencing—in a sense that I find myself hard pressed to put into words even if the feeling is vivid and unmistakable—the enjoyment and intellectual stimulation of following Tom Lambdin’s lectures and reading Egypt of the Pharaohs all those years ago. A surprisingly soothing gestalt of knowledge, I’d call it.

Barry Hoberman

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