Memory: When Books Become Paintings


Marc Chagall

If you asked me to tell you about a book that I read, I would most likely start to remember it with a picture in my mind. I’m not really sure why that is. I think most people remember books verbally, by telling you about the story’s characters and the details of what happened to them. But I tend to remember books by the paintings they leave in my head.

The details of the painting might change depending on the part of the story I am trying to recall, but the primary residence of the story is usually pretty fixed in my mind. Which is to say that stories, for me, usually have a visual home in my memory.

So if a book is well written and the author has provided the material I need —not too much, not too little—to let my mind put me into a story and have a sense of place, then my imagination will get to work. And the first thing I will remember months, even years from now is the book’s painting, because it left a print in my memory.

And like a painting, or a dream, the composition naturally expands and contracts as I think about different parts of the book. Characters arrive and disappear as my memory moves around the landscape. It all happens so quickly that I hardly notice it. I will see the painting and within seconds recall what the point of the book was, how it felt, and why I loved the characters—even if I can’t recall their names. And then, as if waking from a dream, the painting will slip away as the words start to arrive and I say something like, “I loved this book.”

— DJ