I've got about thirty books next to my bed that people have sent me or handed me to read, either because they wrote them or a friend did or they published them or they thought of me when they read them. But every now and then I buy my own, and last time I was in the Berkshires I picked up a couple of books in my favorite used book store, I think it's called The Yellow House, in Great Barrington.
They were two books from a series I think James Atlas edited for Penguin of biographies of interesting historical figures written by interesting contemporary writers. It was such a great idea and so well executed it reminded me of when I was young and bought many books just because they were published by New Directions, or other publishers that seemed to know what I would love to read.
I was pretty certain that I had read every one in the series, that's how much I liked the idea of this series. But when I picked up Thomas Keneally's bio of ABRAHAM LINCOLN and Larry McMurtry's of CRAZY HORSE and read the first few pages of each I had no memory of ever having read the words before. When I got home I checked my bookshelves and sure enough there was the Lincoln bio, but I couldn't find the Crazy Horse one so I started reading it, though now sure I'd read that as well.
For some friends, this kind of memory lapse they'd take as just a part of aging, but for me it's been more a product of the brain operation I had nearly three years ago now. It's not like I don't remember many movies and books and recordings still, I do, or vaguely remember some things I'd read or seen before the operation, though that happens too, but with things like the two bios I bought I don't remember reading one word of them. Which in some ways is good, I get to read things I love as though for the first time.
Or see movies. Like GILDA. This classic was on TCM last night and I turned the TV on just as it was starting and thought I'd look for something else because I remembered being disappointed in this film, except for the famous scene where Rita Hayworth dances and strips off one long glove as though that were as risque as you could get. But as the first scene unfolded I felt like I had never seen this film before, so I kept watching, and in fact every scene in the movie, except for that dance number, seemed brand new. I had no memory whatsoever of having seen any of this film save that scene before. I was watching it for the first time, again!
I could see by the time it was over what I might not have liked about it whenever I'd seen it in the past—mostly the script and storyline not making sense a lot of the times like Glen Ford's character being so clueless about the obviously evil villain of the film—and loved much about it this time, especially Rita Hayworth's acting, often under appreciated because her glamorous and gorgeous screen charisma was so overwhelming.
I remember many decades ago when I was a guest at a fancy dinner party in a New York townhouse because I had a bit of celebrity at the moment on the literary scene. Almost everyone else was someone who I either admired or felt in awe of, like the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby or the poet Barbara Guest. When she mentioned some writing of Colette's, for reasons I can't remember, I must have looked a little unsure so she asked me what I thought about Colette and I had to admit I hadn't read anything by her.
There was a moment of what I took as embarrassed silence, embarrassed for me, broken only when Edwin thoughtfully said: "How I envy you having reading Colette to look forward to." It was typical, I discovered, of him to behave with such graceful manners, at least most of the time around me, and Barbara and I got to know each other over the following years better as well. And of course I went out and read everything Colette ever wrote that was still in print.
My experience with GILDA and McMurtry's CRAZY HORSE makes me feel like Denby did, or maybe pretended to, toward me that time. Instead of being distraught by these amazing lapses of memory I think of myself as lucky, because I get to have the pleasure of reading or watching or listening to some things anew. Like McMurty's CRAZY HORSE and the Hollywood classic GILDA both of which I discovered I was happy to experience, even if critically about some aspects of them. Just more to be grateful for.