Reviews — From the February 2014 issue

Memory’s Passages

The limits of autobiography

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Discussed in this essay:

Pieces of Light, by Charles Fernyhough. Harper. 320 pages. $26.99.

The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit. Viking. 272 pages. $25.95.

I started keeping a daily diary twenty years ago, less out of vanity than out of a wish to understand what was actually happening to me. Only after I record the apparent facts can I stop ruminating on them. I don’t want to forget anything, but despite my daily practice I forget almost everything. It’s not that I can’t say it right; I can’t even remember it right, and what I do put into language perverts the memory further. Still, 800,000 words into the pursuit, I can’t stop recording the evidence that I lived a human life at a particular time and place and station.

My unreliable memory isn’t wholly a failure of my recording skills. It’s also an inevitability of my physical brain. No memories wait in a cranial file cabinet as people once imagined homunculi to wait, tiny and perfect, within spermatozoa. Instead they wait as shattered arrays of data languishing and decaying all around the organ in my skull.

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’s new book, Ongoingness, is forthcoming from Graywolf. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Motherhood,” appeared in the August 2013 issue.

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