Monday, October 15, 2007

My Mind Is Going, Dave . . . I Can Feel It.

When I was young I could remember everything I'd ever read.

Even now I can recall a story in one of my early grade school readers about a king who set a seemingly impossible task: the fulfillment of his desire for a dessert that was both hot and cold. Naturally, a clever young boy solved the problem by inventing the first hot fudge sundae. (It wasn't much of a story, I suppose. But it made a deep impression on me -- probably because it was head and shoulders above the boring exploits of Dick and Jane.)

But with the passage of time and the increasing muliplicity of books under my belt, it's sometimes hard for me to recall whether or not I've already read a particular work. Yet once my eyes run over a page or so, connections in the brain start snapping and I know if I've read it before. And I don't just remember reading it, I recognize the look of the the page. (That's also the reason I don't need bookmarks; a page always looks different after it's been read. Almost as if it had become a different color.)

But now it's finally happened. Yesterday I read Tomorrow The Stars, a short story collection edited by Robert A. Heinlein. My copy has a bookplate in it with my maiden name, so I'm almost certain I bought this while I was in college. In those days I didn't own many books, so no book I bought ever went unread. But as I worked my way through the stories in this volume, I didn't recognize any of them. How could this be?

Then I got up to the ninth story in the collection, "Betelgeuse Bridge" by William Tenn. Within a page and a half I was certain I'd read it before. In fact, I'd remembered details about it that could not have been the result of a lucky predictive guess. (Towards the end of the collection I also found a second familiar story, "Misbegotten Missionary" by Isaac Asimov. But Asimov is so widely anthologized that I could easily have read it elsewhere.)

So what am I to think?

That I read only one story out of this collection which I bought at a time when I was an even more voracious reader than I am now?

That I forgot all of the stories except one?

I suppose this is the sensible hypothesis, but it scares me. One of my elderly relatives has Alzheimer's disease, which to me seems like a fate worse than death. And they say there are genetic factors involved. . .

I discussed this once with my daughter, Fillia, who brightly assured me that if I ever got Alzheimer's she'd keep me happy by sitting me in a chair with a book to read. "You could just read the same one over and over again, Mom." Somehow, that was not as comforting a prospect as she'd intended. Yes, I know that not every middle-aged memory lapse is a sign of creeping dementia. But so much of my mental landscape is made up of things I've read that it's disconcerting to have even the smallest pebbles of it evaporate.


Amy said...

Maybe you only read that one short story originally? If those two seemed familiar, even if only towards the end, then it seems likely that the other stories would at least seem familiar if you'd read them before. (If it were Alzheimer's, your earlier memories would be intact, but new memories wouldn't be).

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Thanks. I know I'm not really slipping into Alzheimer's. But when you're in close contact with a patient who does have it, even the ordinary memory lapses of middle age can freak you out.