On Forgetting Names or I Read Books Written by People, I Swear

I will be upfront about this: I am bad with names. I forget them all the time. I don’t remember who lived down the hall from me my freshman year of college. My neighbor has introduced himself multiple times and I still can’t call him by his name (I think maybe it’s Tom?). There are about 4 or 5 interns working in my office who I just don’t know. I realize that this is a problem, of course, but what am I supposed to do about it? It’s not that I don’t like these people. I’m not a jerk, I tell myself, my brain just doesn’t hold on to that kind of information very well. And besides, it doesn’t seem that serious. I know the names of all the people that really matter to me.

Except that, well, I don’t.

I was recently forced to acknowledge a very uncomfortable truth about myself, an unpleasant side effect of this glitch in my memory: I can’t remember writer’s names. I can recall the titles of books or essays they’ve written that I’ve read and loved, can describe the plot or argument in detail, can probably even remember a long list of works they’ve written that I haven’t read at all, but man, the author’s name? Too often I just have no idea.

This has a lot of negative consequences, I’m afraid. To illustrate this, I present you with a little story:

I was talking to a couple of friends about nonfiction writers and essay collections. “Oh I love essay collections,” I gushed. “They’re my favorite.”

“Well, okay,” they said, “who are some essayists you recommend?”

And, I am not kidding, I drew a complete blank. After a long pause I just said, “Joan Didion…?” Which is true, I absolutely recommend Didion to anyone and everyone, but there are so many other brilliant essayists and in that moment I couldn’t remember a single one.

One of the friends said, “Well, there’s that new collection just out that’s getting a lot of good press. The Empathy Exams, I think. By Leslie Jamison. Have you heard of her?”

I told him I hadn’t but that the book sounded interesting. It wasn’t until another few hours passed that I realized that wait a second yes I had read something by Leslie Jamison. An essay, “Saccharin(e).” I’d loved it, talked to multiple people about it, but had completely forgotten Jamison’s name. And so for the second time in less than four hours I was brought face to face with my own failing and how much it was costing me.

How many great books had I lost out on because I couldn’t recognize the author? How many times have I missed opportunities to share some of my favorite works with other readers because I couldn’t think of a recommendation? And, to look at it a different way, if these authors I read mean as much to me as I say they do, shouldn’t I extend them the common courtesy of remembering their names? After all, though I struggle to remember acquaintances and strangers, I know all my friends, and I consider the writers of my favorite works to fit very squarely into that friend category.

And so I’ve decided to try to do something about my memory problem, though it’s hard to know where to start. Is it enough to just try to be more intentionally aware of the names on title pages? Should I start keeping better notes, lists of books read and authors loved? If you share my mysterious memory affliction, how do you cope? I’m open to all suggestions…


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