False Places I’ve Read Real Books

Joseph Cornell, Untitled Book Project: Journal d’Agriculture Pratique et Journal de l’Agriculture (Detail), unfinished modified book, c. 1930s

1 I was thirteen when I heard my first R.E.M. song. That is a difficult age, as one enters the throes of teenagedom, and I was the quintessential awkward, skinny, overly-emotional, skater punk who thought there had never been anyone in that same situation in the entire history of mankind. It was summer and I was in the basement of our Air Force Base housing in the suburbs of San Antonio, and MTV was on in the background while I sat brooding. Then a video came on with an equally awkward, skinny, somber teenager riding (to my delight) a skateboard through an abandoned barn. The song was this rapid-fire litany of seemingly random comments followed by an assertive chorus that it was the end of the world as we know it, and I should feel fine. I was intrigued. I kicked up my skateboard and immediately road out to the base’s shop, the Base Exchange and bought the album on cassette with my allowance. It was Document by a band named R.E.M. And a lifelong love affair began.

2 Almost exactly a year ago, I was reading a Guardian piece featuring Michael Stipe’s list of his favorite R.E.M. songs. I’m not here to wax on about how amazing R.E.M. is (at least through the 1990s, as I am very biased towards the early I.R.S. albums and some of the early Warner Bros. ones), although I would encourage you to go listen to Stipe’s playlist on Spotify (or this playlist for those of you who use Google Music). Rather, a remark Stipe made profoundly struck me:

When people remind me of something, I have to stop and say: ‘Give me the city first.’ I am not on the [autistic] spectrum, but the way my brain organises things is different from regular people: give me the place and my recall improves by 200%. Maybe that comes from travelling as much as I did as a child with my father [who was in the army] and my mother. Maybe it comes from being in a band, and always picking up and moving on.

As an Air Force Brat, I’ve long had a resonant relationship with place: like Stipe, I have powerful associations with specific spaces as linked to events, moments, and emotions, but feel untethered to any original “home.” In fact, I am always awed by my partner, who grew up in one town and therefore had friends she knew from Kindergarten until she left for college. It was only after I met her, in fact, that I realized her experience was the norm and my own – moving every two to three years – was abnormal. Yet, what Stipe elucidates in the quote is what I have always felt: my life feels more topographical than chronological. I structure memory based on where I was, not how old I was. (In fact, to determine my age at any point in life, I have to first figure out where I was living and what grade I was in and calculate it from there.) Also, memories are tightly linked with the visual way I learn and remember: when I recall information, I tend to “see” it in my mind where it was located on the screen or page I first read it. This is not eidetic memory – I forget things all the time. However, to remember, I associate them visually and contextually with where I experienced them.

3 I have long had this oddly specific confluence in certain memories. I have fully-formed memories of reading specific books in specific places. I know, that’s not at all strange; however, when I think back on these instances, there is periodically a disconnect between the place and year and the book itself. For example, several years ago, I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, a book first released in 2004. Later, long after I finished the book, I could fully recall reading specific passages of the book in the hallway outside my high school art classroom. I can see the specific pages, actually, I can tell you which moment in the book I was reading while the medicinal hallway surrounds me. However, considering I graduated high school more than a decade before the book was published, it is impossible for me to have read that book in that place. It was long this nagging inconsistency in the back of my brain. I was perfectly happy having this memory, but the logic centers in my mind kept whispering, something is wrong here.

4 It was only recently that I realized what was happening: while reading some books, at night during sleep, I was processing portions of the book I was reading mixed with dreams of places I had previously lived. Because my brain processes everything so visually and spatially, it was rewriting these fictional memories as a dream: I could see myself from my own eyes reading that portion of a book in that place, and it therefore became a new “memory.” My own past was being rewritten, reformed, based on current experiences. Granted, this is not unique; we all do this to some degree, I presume. Memory is never infallible. For me, the oddity is that I was generally willing to absorb these new, false memories because of my own strange relationship with place.

5 From third through fifth grades my family lived in Prattville, Alabama, a tiny, racially-charged southern town about thirty minutes outside Montgomery, where the Air Force Base my father worked at was located. The neighbors across from us in the cul-de-sac were this lovely family who welcomed my brother and I into their home during the summer when we were mainly latchkey kids. They were the only African-American family in the neighborhood, and the matriarch of the family was a stately woman who sagely led the household. One summer day I expressed to her an interest in one day becoming a private investigator, so she “hired” me to solve a mystery: her friend’s cat had gone missing. Of course, I know now there was no missing cat. I was entirely unsuccessful in finding the cat, obviously, and she kindly paid me anyway. Still, I was occupied for an entire day acting as a detective, searching the neighborhood, looking for clues, even writing on the cover of a new notebook “The Case of the Vanishing Cat.”

Much later, in college, I read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, a series of short novels about identity, tragedy, and the nature of mysteries solved and unsolved. At some point, my brain merged these together, and I have a distinct memory of sitting in front of my neighbor’s house, reading Auster’s books. I find comfort in my brain’s ability to link these disparate moments in my life, joined by the idea of mystery.

I never did become a detective, though.

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