by James Wallace Harris, February 20, 2020
I have no idea how many stories I’ve consumed in my lifetime. I’m sure the ones I encountered watching television runs into the tens of thousands. Movies, books, and short stories add unknown thousands more. Then there are the countless stories people have told me — some made up and others reported accurately as best they could. And finally, the combined number of all those sources is dwarfed by my own ability to make shit up inside my head.
We all build a model of reality by matching the data we gather with our senses to fictionalized versions of reality. I don’t know why fiction is so important in our lives, but most of us process hours of make-believe every day. However, like the meals we eat, the craps we take, we forget those stories. Evidently, we need a healthy amount of storytelling in our psychic diet every day to remain sane. Like the atoms our body extracts from food for its nourishment are invisible to our conscious minds, so are the essential elements of fiction that our brain craves for its RDA.
Some people are very good at remembering stories. They can regale others by repeating tales at parties or to spice up their political speeches or sales talks. Some people are good at understanding stories, able to interpret a story for all its intended and hidden meanings. I’m bad at both. When I was young I could see a movie and then bore family and friends with long monologues describing all the details of the show. I haven’t been able to do that for decades. Maybe my hard drive became filled and I lost my ability to transfer my mental notes into my working memory.
For some reason in my late sixties, I’ve been craving the ability to remember stories again. The year before last I started a project to read all the annual anthologies that collected the best science fiction short stories of the year. I started with 1939 and I’m currently reading through three anthologies of stories from 1952. I’m getting a big-bang kick out of this — but it depresses me that I forget the stories I read so quickly. And it really irks my existentialism that I forget the best stories.
Up to now, I’ve been very faithful to read every story in every volume, even if I didn’t like them. But I’m now having doubts about that dedication. I wonder if wading through two or three so-so stories after experiencing a wonderful story isn’t just erasing the memory of that great story.
What is my real goal for this project? Is it just a mega-marathon of reading? I sat out to study the evolution of the science fiction short story. I wanted to see how concepts emerged and were spread and reused. I wanted to see how certain ideas were repeated in each new generation. However, along the way, I started noticing more and more about how infrequent great stories are produced every year.
Stories worth remembering are rare. But I have this trouble remembering them, and that’s starting to bug my sense of being an old man who is running out of time. I know at my age I’m fighting an uphill battle to remember anything and I wonder if I need to pick the ground to make my last stand.
Some of the stories I’ve read I want to remember in detail. And that urge is getting stronger. I’m even at the point where I’m willing to consume less fiction just to hang onto a tiny amount of it in my mind. I need to binge-watch less, and binge-read less.
I’ve been thinking about changing my reading strategy. Instead of racing through all the annual best-of-the-year volumes to have the satisfaction of completing another year, I think I need to focus on finding the stories I love best and then reread them. Instead of finishing every story, quit any story that doesn’t resonate after giving it a fair try. Then go back and reread all the stories I did finish. And finally, decide which stories are worth remembering before going on to the next year.
However, I’m going to have to go well beyond that effort if I’m really going to put those stories into my long-term memory. I need to start a list of stories I want to work at keeping at my mind’s fingertips. I’m not sure how long that list can be, but I need to start tracking the best stories and periodically reread them. I’m sure I’ll thin out that list too as competition to get on the list grows. I won’t know the manageable size of the list until I’ve worked at the project for a while. And like a tontine, I expect the list to shrink at I close in on dying. Who knows, as I pass from this world into nonexistence I’ll be thinking about that last story. (That’s an odd thing to say, isn’t it. Why wouldn’t my last thoughts be of a real experience? I need to psychoanalyze that.)
When I started this project, my goal was to identify the stories that were most important to the genre of science fiction. Now I realize I need to identify the stories that are most important to me. And I need to branch out beyond science fiction.
In the long run, I want to create an anthology of stories that I want to remember, but also the ones that best explain my view of reality.