Subtitles always have an air of deficiency about them. Can a short, descriptive phrase ever completely circumscribe every angle, contour and protrusion of a text without necessarily cutting something off? Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing is accompanied by the cozy subtitle “a year reading from home.” However, in light of Hill’s autobiographical intentions (and the helpful word “memoir” placed above the barcode on the back cover), it could just as easily be replaced by “a year remembering from home.” Reading and remembering are, indeed, two very different actions, but, in the case of Hill’s memoir, the two find themselves inextricably intertwined.
In my presentation, which will assume a traditional format, I will argue that Hill’s text presents the object of the book as not only an instrument of communication but also as a technology of remembrance: books intervene in memory and become vehicles for it. In re-reading books from her personal collection, Hill is “inevitably led to . . . thinking, remembering, ordering, assessing, [her] entire book-reading life” (3). The time, space, and expenditure of energy that surrounds the sustained engagement with books imbue them with personal significance until they reach critical mass, and books transform into mediating elements for both our memory and our identity.
In pursuing this aspect of Hill’s text, I noticed two ways in which books intervene in our memories and methods of remembrance. The first comes from a book’s direct participation in the creation of a memory. When reading a text, there are two experiences which happen simultaneously: the experience of the text and the experience with a text (a contentious distinction). The experience with a text involves a hyper-sensitivity in which the reading of a text and the reading environment enter a state of reciprocal enrichment. In a digression, Hill tells us that two of Graham Greene’s novels are forever linked to a day spent in the Milan train station (157-8). Neither the texts nor the train station appear note-worthy on their own. However, their combination leads to a well-formed memory. As the books are constitutive elements of the memory, any re-encounter with those texts will recall it.
The other way in which the book acts as a technology of remembrance is through a secondary association that occurs separately and retroactively. Because this association isn’t constrained by the specificity of being a constitutive element of a particular memory, the book can often become connected in more dynamic ways. The book can attach to a memory by deploying a multitude of aesthetic dimensions: the smell of pages, the weight of the book, the sound of turning pages, and so on and so forth. All one needs is a certain familiarity. The relative weakness of the tangential connection also enables the book to jump between memories and create a cascade that is interestingly threaded. In one instance, Hill’s encounter with a set of Penguin books brings her back to the birth of her third child, to detective stories, and to a hostel run by nuns (11-14). If the books were too tightly connected to a specific memory, this nomadic remembrance might not have been possible.
In Hill’s text, the object of the book acts as something of a proxy for our memories. It is an object that both constitutes our memories and becomes a place holder for them. The role books play in their creation, organization and recollection is a testament to the richness of reading and the power of the book.
1)Are there any particular qualities in books that facilitate their roles as technologies of remembrance?
2)How do you think the mediation of memories via books affects those memories?
3)Have the dynamics of mnemonics shifted along with changes in reading practices/technologies?