When I was in elementary school, one day we all went to the library to watch a Space Shuttle takoff. I can remember sitting on the rough carpet with my class and staring at the TV screen. I can remember seeing the cloud that formed as the Challenger exploded. I can remember my teacher crying and that as a class (we were maybe 8 or 9) we knew it was sad but were more freaked out by the tears of the adults than the actual explosion. It’s one of my clearest memories from elementary school. There’s only one problem with this memory.
It didn’t happen.
The Challenger exploded in 1986 when I was in ninth grade. I heard that date a few years ago, did the math and realized with a shock that my very clear memory is completely wrong. I even questioned the date when I heard it, thinking that the source must be wrong because I remember. And here’s the weirdest part. I can’t get rid of the memory. Even though I know it to be false if I hear the phrase “Challenger explosion” I see myself watching it on that elementary school library floor. I know it’s wrong but it’s ingrained, I can’t replace it with the truth.I’m sure there are neurological explanations for how this memory came to be formed in my head. We probably watched another shuttle takeoff in elementary school (the first was in April 1981 when I would have been 9 and in 4th grade so it fits with the timing in my mind). Maybe I saw the Challenger explode on TV in high school and somehow the two events merged in my head.
I’m sure others have similar experiences. Memories that you are sure of but someone else remembers differently. Our brain’s first reaction is to assume that the other person is wrong because our brains are nothing if not self-delusional. Memory is a tricky thing. We treat it as being objective and reliable but often it fails us.
The Sense of an Ending (yes, I’m finally getting to the book) explores the concepts of memory and time.The narrator, Anthony Webster, is a divorced retired man near the end of his life who unexpectedly receives a letter from someone in his past. This letter makes him go back and remember his time in school and university, centering around his first romantic relationship. The letter also causes him to question his own memories and the life he has constructed based on the interpretation of those memories. I’m being somewhat vague as to not give away too much of the story but in the end, the plot is less important that the characters and the ideas that Julian Barnes wrestles with in the book. These ideas are perhaps best summed up by a quote repeated several times throughout the book:
History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.
This book won the Booker Prize in 2011. It’s a slim book, more of a novella than a novel. I read it in a single afternoon, one in which I somewhat neglected my children, the laundry and many items on my to-do list. When I finished I felt almost woozy. It’s a book that is engrossing and powerful, even if it isn’t completely enjoyable. I didn’t come away thinking that I loved it but I did think that it would remain with me for a long time. It’s a book I’ll remember.