on literature and memory…

“In at least one sense, however, all literature is civic action—because it is memory. All literature preserves something that otherwise would die away with the flesh and bones of the writer. Reading is reclaiming the right to this human immortality, because the memory of writing is all-encompassing and limitless. Individually, humans can remember little: even extraordinary feats of memory such as that of Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians, who could call every soldier in his armies by name, are nothing compared to the volumes that fill bookstores. Our books are accounts of our histories, of our epiphanies and our atrocities. In that sense all literature is testimonial. But among the testimonies are reflections on those epiphanies and atrocities, words that offer the epiphanies for others to share, and words that surround and denounce the atrocities so that they are not allowed to take place in silence. They are reminders of better things, of hope and consolation and compassion, and hold the implication that of these, too, we are all of us capable. Not all of these we achieve, and none of these we achieve all the time. But literature reminds us that they are there, these human qualities, following our horrors as certainly as birth succeeds death. They too define us.”

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