Since a reader could only achieve such mastery with an extremely limited number of books, it will be essential to establish that very few works are worth this kind of attention. We are pushed, that is, toward an elitist vision of literature in which aesthetic appreciation requires exhaustive knowledge only of the best. It is the view of writing and reading that was taught in English departments forty years ago: the dominance of the canon, the assumption of endless nuance and ambiguity, the need for close textual analysis. …

Is Nabokov right that there is only rereading? Does the whole posture, both Nabokov’s and that of critical orthodoxy, bear any relation to the reality of our reading habits, particularly in a contemporary environment that offers us more and more books and less and less time to read them?

Let’s go back to Douwe Draaisma. Why does he describe our inability to recall the sense impressions of a few seconds before as “forgetting”? …

Of course one reason I won’t be able to recall all my impressions is that they will have been substituted by others, equally rich, plus the fact that having written down a few elements of the here and now, any memory of it I might have mustered will be colored if not hijacked by that account. In dismissing the myth of total recall, Draaisma reminds us that the memories we do retain are largely fabrications, re-workings, shifting narratives, simplifications, distortions, photos replacing faces, and so on; what’s more, that there is no reason to suppose that the original impression is intact somewhere in our heads. We do not possess the past, even that of a few moments ago, and this is hardly a cause for regret, since to do so would severely obstruct our experience of the present. …

Words in general have a vocation for rearranging and fixing experience in a way that can be communicated across space and time. Yet often it seems that our experience of the words once written down is as volatile and precarious as our other sense impressions. No reader ever really takes complete control of a book—it’s an illusion—and perhaps to expend vast quantities of energy seeking to do so is a form of impoverishment. Couldn’t there be a hint of irony in Flaubert’s Comme l’on serait savant… (“What a scholar one might be…”)? Is it really wise to renounce all the impressions that a thousand books could bring, all that living, for the wisdom of five or six?

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Excerpts from Reading Is Forgetting, by Tim Parks, June 2015, The New York Review of Books. Thanks to Sylvain Rey for bringing this text to my attention.