February 09, 2004

Remembrance of Books Past

In all his life, the Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson wrote only one fan letter. It was addressed to Ray Bradbury and written soon after Bradbury published an essay in The Nation about why he wrote science fiction; the letter resulted in a friendship between the two men and led to Berenson's suggestion of a possible sequel to Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury never got around to writing that sequel, but he discusses it--and the question of literary memory--in a fun Wall Street Journal op-ed piece called "Remembrance of Books Past."

Here's how Bradbury describes Berenson's suggestion:

Berenson was so fascinated that at lunch one day at I Totti [sic] he said, "Why not a sequel to 'Fahrenheit 451' in which all the great books are remembered by the Wilderness People and are finally reprinted from memory. What then?

"Wouldn't it be," he continued, "that all would be misremembered, none would come forth in their original garb? Wouldn't they be longer, shorter, taller, fatter, disfigured or more beautiful?

"Instead of angels in the alcove, might they be gargoyles off the roof?"

I was so fired by Berenson's suggestion that I wrote an outline, thinking, Oh God, if only I had the genius to know some of the really great books of history and rewrite them, pretending to be my future Book People, trying to recall the details of an incredible literature.

I never did this.

Bradbury goes on to suggest a fun parlor game, in which players would speculate on how a classic work of literature might be misremembered. "Would Usher fall but to rise again?," he asks. "Would Gatsby, shot, do 20 laps around his pool? Would 'Wuthering Heights' ' Cathy, at Heathcliff's shout, run in out of the snow?" How might the works of Jane Austen be envisioned by a champion of women's rights? Mightn't The Grapes of Wrath be imagined as an even more overtly political statement about America and socialism?

Bradbury's game sounds like fun, but I'm more intrigued with Berenson's idea for a sequel. To be frank, I find his idea more interesting than the idea behind Fahrenheit 451--though, to be fair, perhaps I should write out my memories of that novel and see how they compare to reality before making such judgments. (At the end of his essay, Bradbury suggests that his readers write out their memories of the plots of books they read long ago and then compare them to the original.)

Berenson's idea is compelling, I think, because it touches on two key ideas: the way that readers interpret books and the way that people in general remember what they've read. Many writers, I suspect, would be shocked to learn that their readers have learned the "wrong" lessons from their books; people in different times and places understand the same works of literature in very different ways. A novel conscious of this basic fact could be a fascinating philosophical book--discussing the ways a group of several different people might worked together to reconcile their different views to produce as "true" a reprinting as possible, say, or envisioning rival versions of the same work emerging from different authors.

At the same time, I don't think it's a coincidence that a scholar of the Renaissance was intrigued by the question of memory. I've never read one of Berenson's books in its entirety, but excerpts I've seen from works like Rumor and Reflection and Seeing and Knowing suggest to me that Berenson would have something perceptive to say about literary memory. In a recent entry, moreover, I discussed how a study by another writer (Frances Yates) considered memory in the Renaissance:

The Art of Memory, for instance, describes how scholars in an age before printed books were able to retain seemingly incredible amounts of information: One prodigy could recite all of Vergil's Aeneid backwards. By using a "theater of memory," derived from some actual building, a student would place images of what he wanted to remember at selected locations. Then he need only stroll mentally through this imaginary building and glance at his memory-sites to have the images reappear to him in their proper order.

(The quotation is by Michael Dirda.) Jonathan Spence discusses a similar theory of language in his fascinating book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, and I think that ideas of this sort could enrich a novel about memory.

The question of how people memorize lengthy works was also discussed by a scholar of an earlier era, Albert Lord. In his classic work The Singer of Tales, Lord looked at oral epic poetry from the Balkans, showing that it was far more spontaneous and flexible at its performances than most modern readers may realize. The basics of a story, and much of its language, remained the same--but the poet lengthened or contracted his work to fit the mood of his audience. The Singer of Tales is a complex and intriguing work that shows that the art of memory isn't as simple as we're inclined to believe.

I wish I could end this entry with an insightful point or a brilliant summing up, but I don't have any final insights here. Scholars like Yates, Spence, and Lord have shown us that the art of memory is a fascinating subject of study, providing insights that could have enriched a Fahrenheit 451 sequel. And if you're ever in need of a good parlor game, read the rest of Bradbury's essay and speculate on how other novels might have been mis-remembered in another day and age.

Posted by Ed at February 9, 2004 02:05 PM

Lord, how I love Bradbury, especially given his wonderfully bear-like voice and appearance.

Posted by: TPB, Esq. at February 11, 2004 11:49 AM

Um, sorry, hit post too early. I meant to finish with thanks for the link to the op-ed piece.

Posted by: TPB, Esq. at February 11, 2004 11:50 AM
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