Memory in books and media
August 12, 2010 3:48 PM   Subscribe

Looking for fiction books, tv shows, movies, etc, that have something interesting to say about memory-- e.g., why we remember some things but forget others, the quality of memories, anything like that.

Don't bother with non-fiction-- I already know the science-- I'm looking for more literary or pop culture approaches to thinking about memory. For example, Toni Morrison's Beloved has this lovely passage: "It shamed her-- remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that." The movie Memento is another obvious one.

Bonus question: What do you yourself think is compelling or strange or wonderful about your own experiences with memory?
posted by dino might to Writing & Language (44 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:49 PM on August 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Though never stated explicitly, it's a recurring theme in Big Fish.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:50 PM on August 12, 2010

Buried memories coming to the surface is a recurring theme in the recent (and ongoing) Fox series Fringe, as well as several plotlines in a show it borrows heavily from, The X-Files. Nothing interesting or novel to say about it, but a good show.

You might check out TVTropes and browse around a bit, maybe searching for "memory". Here are a few (spoilers are there, but are hidden): Trauma-Induced Amnesia, Laser-guided amnesia, Fake Memories.
posted by supercres at 3:57 PM on August 12, 2010

Oops, you mentioned Memento :)

How about "Inception"
posted by dave99 at 3:57 PM on August 12, 2010

The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal spend a good bit of time dealing with memory: Clarice Starling's childhood issues regarding her father's death in both books, and of course the lambs; and Hannibal Lecter's memories of his dead little sister. (I have chosen to pretend that Hannibal Rising was just a very, very bad dream on my part.)
posted by Gator at 3:59 PM on August 12, 2010

I meant to mention Hannibal's "Memory Palace" specifically; I had never heard of the idea before and thought it was pretty neat.
posted by Gator at 3:59 PM on August 12, 2010

The Crystal Singer trilogy by Anne McCaffrey features people in a profession (searching for and cutting communication crystals) where due to crystal exposure, people will eventually start losing their memory. It's dealt with more in book 3, when the heroine starts to lose hers. In the first book, the MC Killashandra (who's a drama queen) doesn't exactly bother with trying to record her memories for future knowledge so she can forget what she didn't like, and at one point she's temporarily mentored by a guy with very eroded memory. In book 3, you see from Killa's POV what she is missing and doesn't know any more, and how other people feel about it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:01 PM on August 12, 2010

Memorial, by Bruce Wagner, is a really lovely novel of a family all dealing with different issues of memory -- for example, the mother battles Alzheimer's, her condition worsening throughout the book, and the daughter is an architect designing a memorial for tsunami (I think? I haven't read it in awhile) victims.

Jonathan Safran Foer plays with ideas of memory quite a bit in his books, too.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 4:02 PM on August 12, 2010

Also, I know I read and enjoyed Jeffrey Moore's The Memory Artists, but for the life of me I can't remember (ha!) any details. It would be worth a look, though!
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 4:04 PM on August 12, 2010

Time's arrow, or, The nature of the offense by Martin Amis does weird things with causation and memory.
posted by cog_nate at 4:10 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

How to Make an American Quilt
posted by invisible ink at 4:13 PM on August 12, 2010

I really loved Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, which is in part about memory and its distortions. He did a lot with memory in Atonement too.
posted by bearwife at 4:15 PM on August 12, 2010

The Vintage Book of Amnesia, edited by Jonathan Lethem.

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick.

Slaughterhouse-5, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Toto le Héros.

Winterwood, by Patrick McCabe.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:20 PM on August 12, 2010

The strangely-enjoyable Canadian TV show Being Erica deals a lot about how perceptions and memories are influenced by the current state of the observer.
posted by brambory at 4:22 PM on August 12, 2010

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
There's a lovely section of One Hundred Years of Solitude about memory and memory loss.
Shriek, by Jeff Vandermeer
"Shakespeare's Memory," by Borges. Actually, a lot of Borges.
I haven't finished it yet, but Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World seems to deal a lot with memory.
A lot of Ishiguro's stuff is about people living in their memories; not sure if that's what you're looking for, but he's pretty wonderful.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 4:37 PM on August 12, 2010

"The Giver" by Lois Lowry (dystopian childrens/ young adult short novel)
posted by DingoMutt at 5:06 PM on August 12, 2010

The Notebook (book and movie).
posted by amyms at 5:07 PM on August 12, 2010

The movie Total Recall (inspired by the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale).
posted by amyms at 5:11 PM on August 12, 2010

Funes the Memorious, a brilliant short story by Jorge Luis Borges.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 5:11 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

The movie Summer Hours is about, among other things, generational memories, memories as heritage, etc what have you. It's slow and nothing happens but everything happens and it's wonderful.
posted by MPnonot3 at 5:14 PM on August 12, 2010

Atom Egoyan's films often deal with memory in interesting ways. The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia's Journey, and Ararat are all well worth seeing. Ararat is particularly interesting in that it deals with the largely-forgotten Armenian genocide - the movie deals with the act of forgetting as a tool of political violence.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:23 PM on August 12, 2010

Response by poster: These are all wonderful, thanks!
posted by dino might at 5:24 PM on August 12, 2010

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers deals with someone suffering Capgras syndrome - he remembers the events of his life, but not the emotional connections to the people involved in them; but is about a bit more than that.

It's a small part of the series, but Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun involves an alien species for which time, and thus memory, work differently than they do for humans.

Gene Wolfe also wrote Soldier of the Mist and a few sequels, about an ancient soldier who forgets everything that has happened to him each time he wakes up in the morning.
posted by mistersix at 5:38 PM on August 12, 2010

Oh, "Times Arrow" is brilliantly strange!
posted by venbear3 at 6:02 PM on August 12, 2010

Well, of course Bladerunner. The memories implanted into Rachael are what make her feel she's human. Instead of a stinkin' replicant.
posted by Bron at 6:38 PM on August 12, 2010

Harold Brodkey's Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. Harold Bloom says it's canonical. You'll love it or hate it. Try "Largely an Oral History of My Mother".
posted by Joe Beese at 6:56 PM on August 12, 2010

Wolves of Memory by George Alec Effinger is told in a non-linear fashion as the main character remembers bits and pieces of how he got to where he is during the story. Really really good novel.

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke features genetic memory that goes back in time. Explaining this is hard. Making it make sense is even harder. Essentially there is an event that is so horrifying and overwhelming to humanity that its memory is sent back in time to all of humanity that has ever existed and the image of the group that caused the event is demonized throughout history even before the event has taken place or the group has even been encountered. Did that make any sense?

The Assassin's Creed video games the entire plot is based around accessing genetically stored memories.

Here is a pretty big list of genetic memory in fiction on wikipedia.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 7:05 PM on August 12, 2010

Funes the Memorious, a brilliant short story by Jorge Luis Borges.

Beat me to it, but I'd add that the nature of memory is a theme throughout Borges' fiction. The short stories The Maker, The Other Death, and The Witness come to mind. There's also The Aleph, where he wrote:
Does this Aleph exist in the heart of a stone? Did I see it there in the cellar when I saw all things, and have I now forgotten it? Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz.
Lots of other stories of his have bits like that. There's also a song inspired by Borges' ruminations on memory, Things I Used to Know by Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies. The chorus goes:
why can't I keep them here with me?
I see them still like last night's dreams
and what becomes of the memories
when we stop remembering?
posted by JohnMarston at 7:07 PM on August 12, 2010

The Wonder Years. Growing up, everything seems so much bigger than it really was.
posted by karminai at 7:12 PM on August 12, 2010


"The Story" from Amy Bloom's collection of short fiction, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. It's about what we remember, how we choose to remember, and how we tell stories about our past.

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, about a woman with Alzheimer's recalling her young adulthood during the siege of Leningrad

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, a fictional memoir/biography of a woman whose life spans a good portion of the 20th century


La Jetée
Hope and Glory
My Father's Glory & My Mother's Castle
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:15 PM on August 12, 2010

At the risk of being too obvious, Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold. It's sci-fi and has some interesting ideas about how memory can change. So does The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. Thousandth Night by Alastair Reynolds, about altering memories to make good stories. (Slightly less recommended than the rest, but fits the theme well.) Kiln People by David Brin about not keeping memories for money, similar to Paycheck, a very amusing action film. Also, The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper. This is more fantasy-ish, and yet has some out in space bits. Deeply odd and worth pondering.

And in regular fiction, Someone not really her Mother by Harriet Scott Chessman, about a mother with Alzheimer's. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen, somewhere in between revising memories of the Holocaust and a fairy tale or the darkest kind.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:02 PM on August 12, 2010

I dig this story: Paris at Night, by Sung J Woo.
see also: Total Recall.
posted by robotot at 8:06 PM on August 12, 2010

Harlan Ellison's short story/novella The Function of Dream Sleep, it is in the collection Angry Candy.
posted by nanojath at 9:56 PM on August 12, 2010

Immemory by Chris Marker.
Mind of a Mnemonist by Alexander Luria.
posted by minkll at 10:07 PM on August 12, 2010

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King. It's in Different Seasons. Talks about the subjectivity of memory (in court), the pain of memory (in prison), and toward the end, when Andy's starting over, he goes to the Pacific. He says something about how Mexicans say that the Pacific has no memory, and that's where he wants to spend the rest of his days.

Also, Little Plastic Castle by Ani DiFranco:

They say goldfish
Have no memory
I guess their lives
Are much like mine
And that little
Plastic castle
Is a surprise
Every time
posted by Leta at 10:23 PM on August 12, 2010

The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond is a fairly recent novel that follows a woman trying to remember exactly what happened the day her fiance's daughter was abducted while the two of them walked along the beach. The story is peppered with scientific musings about the nature of memory.
posted by slmorri at 10:33 PM on August 12, 2010

Rashomon is a film where four people remember an event in very different ways.
posted by hot_monster at 11:27 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I like Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth as a philosophical look at "memory as proof."
posted by Ky at 11:49 PM on August 12, 2010

"Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting, and the Problem of Matter," Geoffrey Sonnabend.
posted by ecmendenhall at 3:31 AM on August 13, 2010

Joss Whedon's most recent TV series, "The Doll House" is largely about the implantation of false memories.
posted by grizzled at 7:32 AM on August 13, 2010

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff is a short story that involves memories. Also it's not literal, but I think the film Synecdoche, New York is partially about how important events in someone's life replay themselves in memories or dreams.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:36 AM on August 13, 2010

Eric Kraft's work is all about this. They are fictional memoirs of youth written by a narrator who is Kraft's age, with lots of attention to the distortions of memory and how different people remember the same events. A lot like Proust, but much funnier. Not that it's hard to be funnier than Proust.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 12:12 PM on August 13, 2010

'Brideshead Revisited' (book n tv) is almost the sine qua non on nostalgia.
Virtually everything by Nabokov is about nostalgia, displacement and exile. Try his short stories.
'Jules et Jim' (perhaps the book more than the film) illustrates how extreme lengths of time allow bad memories to soften.
Can I say 'Groundhog Day? Heh.
posted by Deor at 4:54 PM on August 13, 2010

Copying from a previous thread:

Never Let Me Go.

Basically it's about a rather lonely young woman looking back on her time at boarding school and remembering her childhood friends. There's quite a lot about the process of remembering and how her memories sustain her.

In one passage she's talking about her schooldays to somebody who had a terrible childhood and she realises they're trying to co-opt her memories to deal with their own traumatic past. They listen to her stories so they can insert themselves and pretend they had a childhood as idyllic as hers.

There's much more to it, which I can't go into without spoiling the story, but suffice to say it's a heart-breaking and beautiful book about how memories form and change and play tricks on us. The story's a bit like that itself. Even the title has a double meaning.

posted by the latin mouse at 12:39 PM on August 15, 2010

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