Once again, my idea of reading more non-fiction this year didn’t materialize. During Non-Fiction November, so many people were actually reading books that I have been meaning to read but I picked up a novel or collection instead. Nonetheless, I’ve squeezed in a few.
Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion (2016)
Memory is plagued by “biological flaws, perceptual errors, contamination, attentional biases, overconfidence and confabulation” but The Memory Illusion helps us to gain an understanding of “the circus that is our perceived reality”.
Although the cover seems to suggest a volume that tends towards self-help, Dr. Julia Shaw is a scientist; although quick to excuse readers who eschew indepth explorations, she isn’t afraid to go into detail. (She explicitly offers readers a pass on the chapter about brain biology, but it is both fascinating and accessible for not-so-science-y readers.)
There are also substantial resources in the back of the volume, for those who wish to pursue the subject, but The Memory Illusion is satisfying as a standalone. And even without text-boxes and bullet-point lists, readers can grasp some key ideas to make changes to daily routines if so desired.
For instance, we are reminded that we need to be paying attention to create memories (“sleep is crucial for consolidation and strengthening of those memories”). Also, the brain is not equipped to multi-task (each task takes longer in the end, so keep that in mind as you’re working through – or across – your to-do list).
Readers can also learn to modify our expectations of others: “Emotional memories have no special protected places in our brains – they are just like all other memories. Understanding this can make us more considerate of the memory errors of others, can inform our approach to the investigation of criminal offences, and can help us empathise with survivors of extreme situations.”
And, why? “Rich false memories exist, whether we want them to or not.”
But forget the extreme situations, even in an everyday sense our memories are “hopelessly fragile, impossibly inaccurate”.
We can be fooled by them just as we are surprised by errant first impressions; we not only misjudge, we misremember. Because “our memories can have inbuilt flaws as a result of the ways our perceptions can be fooled – by visual illusions, our level of arousal, and even from having a poor grasp on the seemingly intuitive ability to sense time”. No matter how complex, concepts like ‘flashbulb memories’ and ‘recollection rejection’ are clearly explained.
Usually there is a breakdown of the related elements, which are explained individually as well. For instance, in the segment about memory hacking, the term is defined, as well as the related elements, the pieces of the memory puzzle that can allow false memories to happen (including a lack of scepticism, assumptions about ‘symptoms’, presumptions of guilt, scientific illiteracy, and one’s presumption of certain ‘truths’).
Here we have not only a matter of observations and studies, but some theorizing as well. For instance, readers are introduced to the concept of fuzzy trace theory, which “proposes that memory illusions are possible because each of our experiences is storied as multiple fragments, and these fragments can be recombined in ways that never actually happened”.
Best read in small but regular bursts to absorb the concepts, The Memory Illusion is certainly informative if not memorable (which is all my fault, of course).
E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927)
As a series of lectures, E.M. Forster draws appropriately on the works with which his listeners would have been most familiar. And, of course, he has his favourites.
“The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.”
He loves the Russian novelists, Tolstoy in particular.
“After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them. They do not arise from the story, though Tolstoy is quite as interested in what comes next as Scott, and quite as sincere as Bennett. They do not come from the episodes nor yet from the characters. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum total or bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.”
But above all, he loves fiction. “And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us: they suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power.”
And he discusses specific aspects of creation in detail. Well-known are his observations about flat and round characters. (“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.”) His definitions of story and plot. (“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”) And endings. (“Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up.”)
But in Aspects of the Novel there is more to discover: much more detail on each aspect, including some lengthy quotes from the works he’s chosen to explore.
“The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They ‘run away’, they ‘get out of hand’; they are creations inside a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay.”
Of course there’s always more to discover when one goes to the source, rather than relying on the excerpts most often quoted.
Rajiv Surendra’s Elephants in the Backyard (2016)
One of the highlights of Rajiv Surendra’s memoir is his recounting of his visit to India.
“I was greeted with the wild chaos, disorder, and craziness in which India seemed to function perfectly well. My first major challenge: I had to cross the street. Having just arrived in Pondicherry, the air, thick with moisture and heat, exuded a kind of primeval energy that had a strangely calming effect on me. Even the light seemed different here. I was fueled by a sense of adventure, my feet now planted in a completely new world.”
Previously, he was your typical Scarborough kid. (Which makes him easy to relate to and, for those who know him from “Mean Girls” it’s probably reassuring that he was just a normal kid, before he was famous and all.)
“In sixth grade it was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. When it was warm enough outdoors, my best friend, a Trinidadian kid named Reshad, would meet me every day after school and we’d set off on our horses (bikes) with swords (plastic) strapped to our backs, traveling the countryside (suburban Scarborough, made up of cookie-cutter-type subdivisions) looking for battles that needed our help (these were completely made-up and usually took place in an obliging park or field).”
He visits India as research (not so much into his own heritage, which might have been another kind of story:; he has decided that the role in the film “Life of Pi” is destined to be his and he seeks to understand the character in more detail.
Having first learned of the role from a camera-man on another set, he is struck by the similiarites between him and Pi, most remarkably that both boys grew up with a zoo nearby. (There are no notable exchanges with tigers here, however.) He pursues the role vigorously.
The replies that he receives from Yann Martel – who makes it clear that he is not part of the production process and has no influence over casting – are interspersed with Rajiv Surendra’s own experiences.
“I too was in a sort of nowhere place with regards to a firm cultural identity. No, I could not confidently say that I was only Canadian. And now, in India, I felt completely unworthy of calling myself Tamil when I couldn’t even speak the language or cross the damn street.”
Because he is so young, this question of identity is the main aspect of the work likely to appeal to readers who are older than he is. And this question of identity does develop even beyond ethnicity. (Spoiler: “Kissing this boy, without thinking at all, broke the spell.”) Readers younger than he might be equally impressed by other stories, like the one about the groundhog who gets inside one of the buildings in the Pioneer Village, where his acting skills are put to use between more glamourous roles.
Is any one of these on your TBR? Which do you think you’d be most likely to enjoy?
Have you been reading non-fiction this month? Any recommendations?