A writer friend recently asked me to recommend books about memory. I ran into my basement to pore through my collection. Some books I can remember by title or author, some by their memorable characters, all of them by the look of a cover.

Memory is a sensory act. For me, visual clues evoke memories. For the editor-in-chief of a food magazine, smell is his go-to sense.

To this day, if I walk near a swamp and breath in that musky smell, I’m suddenly back in my parents’ yard, ankle-deep in pulpy leaves and mud, net in hand, gaze fixed on a fat bullfrog. It’s remarkable how smell can do that […] the closest thing we have in this world to time travel.

Dan Souza, “Letter from the Editor” in Cooks Illustrated, Sept/Oct 2020

It’s quite a feat to capture smell or sound in words. It’s a miracle of an entirely different order to enmesh memory in the process. What is a book about memory if not time travel?

Memoir is obviously a book of memories. But my friend is looking for fiction. These are the titles I gave her, novels and stories whose imprint on my memory will not fade.

The Things They Carried

For Tim O’Brien, the memory of war in Vietnam weighs heavily. This short story collection weaves together tales of the Alpha Company though their memories are far from shared. Each story features a different man. Each man is burdened by his own private memory of hell.

All of these stories are told by an Alpha Company grunt conveniently named Tim O’Brien.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
Photo credit: Karen Kao

I’m forty-three years old and a writer now, and the war has been over for a long while. Much of it is hard to remember. I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watch Kiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field, or Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree, and as I write about these things, the remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening.

Tim O’Brien, “Spin” in The Things We Carried (First Mariner Books 2009)

Memory and trauma are opposite ends of the same snake. To remember too much is bad. To avoid all memory is unhealthy. For O’Brien, salvation comes in the form of writing.

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. […] You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.


This is the power of fiction. To invent in order to understand.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

In 1989, when Marie Jiang was 10, her father abandoned his family to journey to Hong Kong. There, he killed himself. For years, Marie avoids the memory. She becomes a professor of mathematics. Her life is comfortable and controlled. Then a chance musical phrase — Bach’s Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 4 — enters her ear and destroys her equilibrium.

Here is what I remember.
My father has a handsome, ageless face; he is a kind but melancholy man. He wears glasses that have no frames and the lenses give the impression of hovering just before him, the thinnest of curtains. His eyes, dark brown, are guarded and unsure; he is only 39 years old. […] when I learned my father had been a renowned concert pianist in China, I thought of the way his fingers tapped the kitchen table, how they pattered across countertops and along my mother’s soft arms

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books 2016)
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.
Photo credit: Karen Kao

Marie’s quest to understand her father takes her through some of the most traumatic moments in modern Chinese history: the Cultural Revolution and the massacre at Tiananmen Square, famine and persecution and imprisonment.

There is also a novel within this novel, The Book of Records by Wen the Dreamer. Wen copies and re-copies his chapters, slightly altering the text as an act of opposition. He passes the copies to family and friends who, in turn, add their own flourishes.

This is only right, Thien writes. No one person can tell a story this large.

The Memory Police

The Chinese government continues to exert extraordinary efforts to erase the memory of Tiananmen from the minds of its citizens.

Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia. A single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state’s carefully constructed edifice of accepted history, scaffolded in place over a generation and kept aloft by a brittle structure of strict censorship, blatant falsehood and wilful forgetting.

Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia (Oxford University Press 2015)

It’s a small leap from fact to fiction in the realm of dangerous memories. On an unnamed island nation, things disappear. Ribbons or perfume or ferry boats —random, innocuous, everyday objects which the government has decided should go.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

If it’s a physical object that has been disappeared, we gather the remnants up to burn, or bury, or toss into the river. But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what’s disappeared.

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police (Random House 2019)

The stench of a shit field binds Tim O’Brien’s memories to Vietnam. The notes of a Bach sonata connect Marie Jiang to her lost father. If we can no longer hold a silky ribbon in our hand, how much longer can we retain its memory?

To remember is to relive, to understand, to know. Memory is an act of bravery.