Saturday, October 15, 2022

Associate Professor

They never cared for memoirs, and they claimed to not trust them. Proud of their own memory, they compared it to the apparent recall capabilities of memoirists and became suspicious. How often the exact words of someone known only in childhood were reported. How rich the surrounding details, drawing the reader into the well-constructed scene. They asked themselves—does our memory work like this? Does our memory feel like this?

No, their memory did not work or feel much like any memoir worked and felt, not even for the early adult years when the scenes were often clearest. Even there, they noted how much more their memories were like dreams than plays with scripts. Strange shards shone vividly, accurately or not. Darkness swirled around and pressed in from all sides. Sequences were uncertain. Scents were to memories only the inverse of what they could be to dreams. A sudden smell could startle a dreamer awake or cast a waking person into a sudden reverie. But other scents among the memories in that reverie rarely surfaced vividly as the first, or at all, about as rarely as scents ever surface within dreams.

One morning, something they could not remember led them to remember reading a Time magazine review of the last book in Philip Jose Farmer’s River World trilogy, decades ago. There was no scene to this memory, no action, only the vague feeling of being eager to read the review, being a young science-fiction fan who had discovered Farmer’s River World in the public library a bit earlier and been wholly absorbed by it.

And what, now, did they recall of that trilogy itself? It was set on a planet around which a river ran from pole to pole like a perfect apple peel. Every human who had ever lived was there, which gave Farmer an excuse to put together his own dream team of past figures he found interesting and send them down this river as a small group in a boat. The team included Mark Twain and a Neanderthal, also a medieval character, and maybe Einstein. Several others, unremembered. Anyway, it turned out that this world wasn’t any kind of supernatural afterlife, only a sort of zoo created by an incredibly advanced alien species who had both the power and the mysterious desire to copy every human at death and to then re/store them on this artificial River World.

At least, that’s the best they could remember of the trilogy’s winding story at four decades’ distance. Of the book review, they remembered that the reviewer generally praised Farmer, while noting that the premise of the story was outlandish. And they remembered that the reviewer admired how quickly Farmer’s story went along. The reviewer then quoted Thoreau, “When skating on thin ice our safety lies in speed.” They never forgot that one, exact sentence out of the blur of the rest of the review, the blur of all of Farmer’s thousand-or-so page trilogy, the blur of that vivid year in their life.

Later, they discovered in a literature class that the quotation wasn’t Thoreau’s, but Emerson’s, and that the correct phrasing was “In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed.” Reading Emerson’s essays, they would also learn that he wrote the sentence as part of a depiction of the New England character, specifically with regard to trading things, how trade-loving New Englanders avoided investment disasters by never hanging on to anything long.

So, it wasn’t a general observation at all. It was specific to a particular kind of person in a particular kind of situation, and it was slightly humorous. They couldn’t long recall the exact phrasing of Emerson’s whole essay, but there it was, more or less, a part of them from then on, a mossy path leading backwards from what they recalled of Emerson’s essay to the shining shard of that one line in a forty-year old Time magazine book review. (Did they just remember it wrong? Did the reviewer’s copyeditors let slide a mistake about Thoreau?) And from there, back to a vaguely wintry day in a small town’s public library, a year or two earlier maybe, among shelves of plastic-covered, hardbound science fiction novels, sitting on a footstool with a big, fat book about adventures on a River World, which felt compelling, at the time. The footstool, actually, was probably from another memory.

Did any of this hodge-lodge of broken precision and blurry context remind them of those well-regarded memoirs they had read? No, not really. No, it did not. They said as much, sometimes, when someone would listen.

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