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Open Book

Memory Retrieved

Novelist and teacher of writing Nicholas Delbanco ’63 explores a box in the attic in one of nine essays, “In Defense of Quotation,” from his new collection, Anywhere Out of the World: Travel, Writing, Death (Columbia University Press, $27.50):

My wife and I are cleaning out our attic, and we found a box full of maps. Small guides to Paris and Barcelona and London and Rome, large ones of Spain and Italy and Great Britain and France all felt well-worn and pliable; less so were the maps of places visited decades ago only briefly. There were ferry schedules from Woods Hole and Brindisi and Tortola and Oban. There were brochures from Goteborg and Hong Kong and Vienna and Bangkok and Berlin. In the spirit of triage, we unfolded these sheets, and I started to throw them away. The roads of Cape Breton and roads around Athens had penciled-in markers and arrows; I must have followed them once….

Soon enough we were driving down Memory Lane, attempting to remember where we’d been, and when, and why. The Raffles Hotel in Singapore commended itself; so too did the Hotel Residence Duc de Bourgogne in Bruges. We had stayed in them long years before and could not jettison these markers of our shared romantic youth. The Restaurante-Bar Gran Vitel in Bogota announced its history and menu, along with photographs of chefs and rooms now no doubt remodeled or wrecked. A card listed room rates for the “Yasa Samudra” on Kuta Beach in Bali; that hut on the south Java Sea—“Breakfast and Service Charge Included”—once cost us nine dollars a day….

What remains of all of this; how do the schedules of tram lines convey, in the present, the past? A printed watercolor illustration of “The Living Goddess” fairly reeks of Kathmandu. I need only look at an old map of Rhodes to remember the feel of the thick pants I wore, the light on the sea wall, the flavor of sea urchin eggs. Unfolding a brochure on a Martello Tower in St. Johns, I remember the dog in the back seat and how, when I walked him, he lunged after sheep. Proust wrote of these matters at eloquent length, and I don’t mean to rehearse the obvious: Kabul is not the place it was, and the memory of places visited is not the same as being there. Things change.

But it seems to me quotation is a constant; it’s how we preserve what we keep. If a menu or hotel brochure can evoke in its vivid immediacy a place or time far distant, then what we unfold when we open old charts is memory retrieved. Old letters and journals and maps and photographs each serve the same function as guide. It’s a form of dreaming, really, a return to the experience of innocence….

Edgar Degas received permission to make copies at the Louvre in 1853, when he was eighteen. He copied Ingres and Poussin, among others, and traces of their influence would linger in his brush stroke and palette till old age. Later he had this to say: “The Masters must be copied over and over again, and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature.” The “radish from nature” is a box full of maps; the country or city they point to is referenced by memory (you have heard that song before; there was a full moon, that “Old Devil Moon”; you were standing on a blanket on the lawn at Tanglewood), and the reality of such a text or image is a quotation retrieved.