Memoir, Memento, Memory…Where did I put that book again?

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.

Discussion Questions:

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?

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2 Responses to Memoir, Memento, Memory…Where did I put that book again?

  1. Jonathan Dueck says:


    Let me begin by saying that this is an excellent summary for what promises to be a likewise excellent presentation. It seems to me that in addressing the associative role books play in terms of memory and conceptual organization, you are striking to the very heart of Hill’s text.
    First, your introductory comment about subtitles is relevant for several purposes, perhaps most notably the idea of authorial pre-categorization, whereby an author/publisher might attempt to influence the manner in which his/her book serves as what you so aptly term \an instrument of communication […and…] a technology of remembrance.\ Due to several of our previous class discussions, as well as a general fascination with the question, I was struck throughout my reading of your post with the question of authorial intent in fashioning these respective roles for the book. You didn’t seem to address it, so perhaps we can talk about it in class, specifically whether or not the author ‘intends’ for his/her book to invoke certain memories or hold certain associative properties.
    Your note on the joint experience of and with a text is likewise relevant, and is thematically very important to Hill’s work as a whole, as the work is indeed a reflection upon a life experienced ‘with’, and remembered ‘through’ books. The process in infinitely more complex than a book being a simple placeholder, however, as it often seems that a book is a placeholder for other placeholders, as evinced by the many tangents Hill seems to traverse. Additionally, other such things as music (eg. Benjamin Britten’s \Sea Interludes\ on page 204) also serve as memory placeholders. That said, you are undeniably correct in your observation that the numerous aesthetic dimensions of the ‘book object’ connect with life and experiences in a multitude of dynamic ways, and this indeed seems to be the thread that connects Hill’s work.
    To address the questions you raised, at least to a minor extent, it seems that an important quality of a book is its ability to trigger a sense of identification within the reader, and Hill notes at multiple times that a book’s relevance for her, and consequently the effect to which it serves as a mnemonic placeholder, is directly dependent upon her ability to identify with the scenes and characters it contains. In this sense, then, making a book a technology of remembrance is a relative phenomenon with different implications for each unique reader. It is also acknowledged, in the case of Don Quixote, that it is not even necessary to have read a book for it to serve as a technology of remembrance, and from this we can deduce that the ‘classic’ label, which allows a book to enter into common academic discourse, is itself sufficient to facilitate this role for a book. In terms of Mnemonics, I’m not sure that any qualitative change has taken place, as learning has long been understand as the simple process of making connections, but it must be conceded that new ‘book’ forms such as the graphic novel or audiobook succeed in triggering multiple stimuli and thus arguably possess greater mnemonic potential.
    I will end this post, at the risk of rambling, but I would like to add a question to the discussion – what is Hill trying to accomplish with her work, in light of this discussion? Does she intend for \Howard’s End is On The Landing\ to serve as a sort of ‘ultimate placeholder’ to her reader for a multitude of books, both read and unread? (\The Reader’s Guide to Everyman’s Library\ on page 228 seems to do this for her)

  2. Jonathan says:

    A couple quick notes for my post:

    In my second-last paragraph it should say “learning has long been understood” instead of “understand”

    Additionally, in reading over the post, I can see that all of my quotation marks have instead been turned into backslashes. I don’t know how that happened, but I apologize – perhaps it is just the blog’s formatting…

    Looking forward to class discussion!

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