The Warped and Faulty Reservoir…

One of my favorite quotations from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is:

“… memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir.”

How often am I reminded of this while reading.  I’ll stumble upon a reference to someone or something I have read about or read, but so long ago (and sometimes not even that long ago!) that, frustratingly, I can remember almost nothing about it.  The book on Lincoln I just read mentions a 1860 campaign biography of Lincoln, written by William Dean Howells.

That name was familiar to me, but it took a few moments to remember from where.  I actually read – probably more than fifteen years ago – a novel of his called The Rise of Silas Lapham.  Sadly I remember very little about this book, other than it was kind of a ‘rags to riches’ story about a man who earns a fortune in the paint business (by discovering a ‘paint well’ on his property).  I remember very little of the details of the book, and this rather makes me wonder if a lot of the reading I do is a ‘waste of time’ if I don’t retain it any better.

My dad was a teacher, and always stressed the importance of ‘review’ in the learning process.  I suspect this is what is lacking in my case.  Being blessed with a ‘competent’ memory though not a remarkable one, I need to bolster it somehow.  I was also reminded of this while reading the Lincoln book (covered in my last post) that Lincoln reportedly would not just read something, he would read it and re-read it a few times until he “got it.”  Once he had it, he rarely lost it.  He described it as though his memory were like a piece of steel – very had to make a mark upon, but once marked, also very hard to remove the mark.  I think reading books on my iPad may end up making remembering easier for me.  It is so quick and painless to review the sections that I’ve highlighted or noted, I should have no excuse for not revisiting these books later.

How about you?  Do you remember much/anything/everything about books you’ve read long ago?  I’m curious…


  1. Dale Barthauer said,

    September 5, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I’ve thought about this a lot, too. I find myself remembering things when I thought I had forgotten them. As much as I read and an much as I enjoy reading, I think that if I set out to remember everything, I wouldn’t enjoy reading as much. At the same time, improving my retention would never be a bad thing.


  2. stentorpub said,

    September 7, 2010 at 6:31 am

    Yeah, I’ve struggled with this a lot too. I’ve even thought about doing a “Project: Memory” some time/year to see if I can improve my ‘default’ memory settings somewhat – without making it a “chore” that decreases enjoyment as you speculate.


  3. October 2, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I really enjoyed reading “Travels with Charley” very much, and it’s interesting to see what quotes or premises stick with each reader.

    Every time I go on a trip, I think about the line (I may be paraphrasing here), “You don’t take a trip, a trip takes you.” It’s the most simplistic, poignant sentence I have read on travelling… and there are a few of these tidbits of wisdom in this book.

    What a premise too, travelling around America because you feel as if you are lost in your own country, and can no longer write about something you don’t understand.

    My review here:


  4. stentorpub said,

    October 3, 2010 at 7:07 am

    Thanks for the comment, EI. I also like the ‘you don’t take a trip, it takes you’ concept. I’ve traveled a lot over the years (been in all the states except for Alaska & Hawaii) and there’s nothing like a good road trip. In recent years, I’ve even considered taking a couple trips to follow, roughly, Steinbeck’s route, our one of Kerouac’s routes around the country.

    The quotation on memory is actually very early in the book – before he starts his trip – and I had just recalled it because I had been wanting to write a post lamenting my ‘inadequate’ memory. There are obviously many, much better, nuggets of wisdom in this wonderful book.


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