I was discussing fantasy books with a coworker the other day and during the conversation I told him about a book I had read years ago that he might like. I couldn’t remember the title, but the premise was there. What I recalled was two college friends who are transported to a sort of medieval England. There was magic and villains and a mingling of Christian tradition and Celtic mythology.
But afterwards, I got to thinking about all the books I’ve read over the years. I figured that I started reading when I was, I don’t know, let’s say six years old. If I read twenty books a year for forty-plus years, that puts my total somewhere around one thousand. Give or take a few dozen. And that’s not counting the stories I read in magazines and online. However, what I really wondered was how many of them do I actually remember.
Of all those books and stories, I feel like most of them are in my head, at least in bits and pieces. I can remember plots, maybe characters, and even the endings of a fair amount of them, but not all. Maybe fifteen? Twenty? And as far as book titles and story titles are concerned, I don’t think I could remember more than a quarter. At least, that’s probably the best I could do if you handed me a pen and a piece of paper and asked me to list everything I’ve ever read.
Think about that for a moment…how many books and stories do you think you’ve read in your lifetime? Some of you have read less, some have read many more, but just consider that estimate. Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? It’s mind boggling.
You know, it’s something to think about from the perspective of a writer. We all want to write great stories that our readers will love and remember. We want someone to read one of our books or short stories without being able to put it down, and when they get to the end they just sit and stare into space as it all sinks in. Maybe there’s an open-mouthed look of amazement on their face, they’re stunned by the eloquence, the narrative voice, the characterization.
Of course, not all of our stories quite hit that mark, but we try.
There are several that have stayed with me, ones that I remember well enough that I could probably recite the majority of the story. These include The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Slaughterhouse Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Stand, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I know, the last one is philosophy, but I’ve read it several times over the years so it makes the list.
But what about all the ones I read that I don’t quite remember, or perhaps don’t remember at all? I know it sounds silly, but a part of me feels guilty for not remembering them. I went to a bookstore, I browsed, I picked up a few titles, thumbed through them and read a few random pages to get a feel for the stories, then made a decision, paid and took one of them home. I carried it around with me for a few days or weeks, spent a couple of hours of quality time with it every day. Just the book and me taking a journey together.
At some point I finished the book and set it on the bookshelf or loaned it to a friend. Then time passed and it slipped my mind. Someone might have asked me what books I’d read recently and I’d list off a few, but there would be that one I couldn’t quite remember…
I wonder if it was the story, or just my lack of interest. You know how it is, you buy a book and try really hard to be interested in the story, but for some reason it doesn’t quite grab you. Maybe the plot seems cliché or the characters are one-dimensional and boring. Maybe the writing style is overly verbose or a little too casual. Whatever the reason, it’s not one you’re going to remember.
I guess it can’t be helped. Taste is subjective. From a writer’s perspective, I have to keep that in mind. Not everyone is going to like what I write. That’s not my fault. There are people who have read my fiction and enjoyed it. There have been others who either didn’t like it or didn’t understand it. That has nothing to do with me.
But there’s still that part of me that looks at my stories like children. I want them to be liked, to be accepted, to hang with the other cool books in the bookstore. I want them to mature gracefully. Truth is, most of my work is going to fade into obscurity. It’s going to happen to most writers. But if we’re lucky there will be one story we write, one book, one poem, that someone somewhere is going to read and it’s going to resonate with them. More than likely we’ll never know that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Stories are going to be forgotten. Mine. Yours. That’s life. But we’re still going to have fun writing them. We’re still going to be proud of them. And we’re going to continue writing them for as long as we can.