Dave Eggers and the limits of memory

Recently, a lot of our online content platforms have gotten pretty good at suggesting stuff that you will like, but unfortunately they tend to keep their suggestions on the safe side. If we were talking about food, it would be something like, “we see that you enjoyed Burritos yesterday, why not try Tacos today?” While I will indeed probably enjoy Tacos given that I enjoyed Burritos in the past, what if I would also like Sushi, if someone were able to introduce me to it? Since Sushi is quite a jump away from Mexican food, I think there would have to be some unexpected event that forces me to try Japanese food in order for me to discover my unknown love of Sushi. I guess I’m saying that, insofar as our tastes can be said to evolve, there should be some random mutations in the process as well, which doesn’t seem to be a strong suit of the various ways to find content online.

In any case, what I really wanted to do was to bring up a point about books, not food. I think it’s good to have a certain degree of randomness in the books I read. Something I like doing is going to the thrift store to pick up books. While this is an okay way to come across some interesting random books for cheap, I find that this approach suffers from a fatal flaw: while there may seem to be an unbelievable number of books in a thrift store, for some reason at least 20% of them are always Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert, and another solid 30% are “For Dummies” guides for boring stuff, like Excel or Hotel Management.

The best way that I have found literary entropy was when I was browsing though book exchanges at hostels. You’re sure to come across interesting books from around the world this way. Sometimes it’s the physical book itself (as opposed to its content) that is interesting. When I was in Iran, this English dude gave me a copy of SuperFreakonomics that he had picked up in India. It was apparently a pirated copy — the cover looked like that cardboardy material they make beer coasters out of, and the lines of text were all crooked and blotchy. A good chunk of the book was just straight up missing (no doubt these were the pages that were not accessible on Google Books when the pirate was making the book). I had no idea until then that people even bothered to pirate paper books.

Something else about hostel books is that, in an unfamiliar environment, even not very good books that you read can stay with you in a strange way. I spent a lot of time reading random books from the hostel bookshelf when I was staying in Istanbul. It was the summer of 2013. I was staying just a short hop away from Gezi Park, and the massive protests that had happened there just a few months prior had left a restive feel about the city. Every night there would be a clash between protesters and riot police in an alleyway somewhere. One of the books I read during those tense evenings was All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown, but in a German translation (ALLES IST NICHT GENUG). This was definitely a book that I would probably never read in my normal life, much less in German. I certainly missed a lot of important parts due to not knowing a lot of words, but I’m pretty sure that this book is not the greatest, even in its original English. For some reason though, to this day I still find myself thinking about certain moments from that book, so in this way reading the book was powerful and influential for me, but I suspect this has more to do with the circumstances in which I read the book rather than the strength of the book’s imagery. I have really surreal memories of sitting in the hostel common room reading this book, with a warm Bosphorus breeze flowing through the window, when suddenly, shouts and sirens would come from the street below, followed by a loud crack, and everyone in the room would feel a sharp sting in their eyes and nose, and we would all rush to close the window to shut out the worst of the tear gas that had exploded in the street. Then, amidst a tingling sort of worry that hung about in the air, I would sit back down, open up All We Ever Wanted Was Nicht Genug, and be transported back to Janelle Brown’s Deutsch-sprechende Californian suburbanites and their tennis courts, cocktails, Porsche Cayenne…

Another book I read during this strange period in time is A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. Luckily for me, the copy I picked up was in its original English. This book isn’t bad, but to be honest, it’s pretty unremarkable, and I mean in no way to recommend it here. It’s about a middle aged American going on a last-ditch sales trip to Saudi Arabia to try to shore up his desparate finances. The overwhelming impression I got from the book was that Saudi Arabia sounds like a really boring place to work. The whole setup of the novel was kind of interesting, but I felt like there wasn’t much of a point to the story and the writing style was kind of weird.

However, the experience of my trip seems to have sprinkled my memories of this mediocre book with a little bit of MSG, and in the coming years I found that many quotidian moments from that book had seared themselves into my memory. I would often replay random moments from the book in my head, such as the main character reviewing the embarrassingly low income on his tax return. This developed in me the impression that I actually really enjoyed A Hologram for the King, and that it would be a worthwhile experience to read another Dave Eggers novel, so I went out and got his book The Circle. I had read that this book dealt with a dystopian future involving a powerful social media tech company, which sounded like a timely and interesting topic. As an added bonus, I discovered in the first few pages of the book that the main character attended Carleton College. Unfortunately, I think that The Circle is less good than A Hologram for the King (a book that I like only in my memory, but suspect would be not great if I actually re-read it in normal circumstances).

There’s a certain kind of fiction that I always get burned by; it’s where the idea and themes behind the work are really interesting, but then as you work through the book you realize that the author seems to find the ideas behind the story a little too interesting, which is to say that you realize that the story only really exists as a means for the writer to make a point about a particular idea, and therefore the work is incidental to the philosophy behind the work. This was the main aspect I that didn’t enjoy about reading certain hoity-toity “must read” works such as Brave New World and The Stranger. This sort of philosophy in art’s clothes is what seems like a defining characteristic of a lot of modern art works, but at least a painting or sculpture only takes a few minutes at most to take in, which leaves plenty of time in the day for you to ponder the meaning of the work. For a book that takes weeks to read, boredom becomes a much more significant factor. I think at a very basic level, I enjoy a book if cool things happen to cool people who have funny things to say, and in this respect I didn’t feel like The Circle was a very effective story. Not even school spirit could make me care much about the main character, Mae, because I was always aware that she didn’t speak as a real person, but more as a “results not typical” type of paid promoter. There was something about the whole thing that lacked authenticity. And all of this should probably have come as no surprise to me, but my memories led me astray.

What’s even more outrageous is that a couple weeks ago, I had forgotten about the bad aspects of The Circle enough that I excitedly went to go see the movie adaptation in theaters. At this point you could be forgiven for assuming that I was some sort of Dave Eggers-liker. Am I in the Nile about being a Dave Eggers fan? At this point I don’t even know. I just know that I paid nine American dollars to go see The Circle, and hilariously, it was even worse than the book was. Tom Hanks and Emma Watson are in it, so I guess if you like those people you could go see it. Interestingly, Tom Hanks is also the star of the film adaptation of A Hologram for the King, which was apparently one of the lowest grossing films ever to star Tom Hanks, but apparently appearing in film adaptations of Dave Eggers novels is a burden that Tom Hanks must bear until the end of his days.

So judging from this chain of events, I suspect that in a couple of months I’ll find myself reluctantly reading another goddamn Dave Eggers novel, or watching the film A Hologram for the King. Why do I keep returning to Dave Eggers’ work? I think it’s because I will always expect anything written by him to have a special glimmer about it, no matter how many times I find that to be untrue, just because of how I first met his work. I think that a big takeaway from this is that memory can be very emotional, and how we appraise and remember something has surprisingly little to do with the actual merits of the thing. I think of the enthusiastic love that certain people have for those crappy 90’s Saturn cars. Certainly, the Saturn is loved not for its mechanical qualities, but because it is the physical embodiment of certain feelings — namely, 90’s nostalgia, your first taste of the freedom of the open road, and good times in the parking lot of a Sonic Drive-In, with friends who have long since drifted away to become unremarkable adults, but in that one carefree memory of the past, they still carry with them that conviction that the whole world was overflowing with wonder and excitement, just waiting to be discovered, glistening in the setting sun at the end of an open highway… And yet, when we return to those memories turned into objects with sober eyes, they never seem to be as good as we expected them to be. So, caveat emptor for anyone looking to buy a link to their past — the light of the present is harsh.