When Things Disappear: Books On Memory and Loss

I’ve noticed an emerging theme. In the last six months I have read books that deal with the disappearance of things. In some cases, the lost things are things we never thought we could lose. In other cases, it is the act of losing that is so devastating. These books have been fascinating and terrifying all at once. Here is a look at some of these books and why this type of idea is emerging in literature. 

The oldest book in the group is a very innovative and probably the most upbeat book titled Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (2002), the deals with the disappearance of language. In the book is described as “a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was the named after Nevin Nollop, the author of the immortal phrase containing all the letters in the alphabet, ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.’  Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.” This book not only shows the absurdity of how we define rules and social construcut, but it also physically oppresses the reader. Each letter that is dropped from the language, gets dropped from the prose, making it harder and harder to understand. Until it becomes absurd, it feels complicated and oppressive. This brilliant short read feels like a silly parable, but the implications of the novel are deep and meaningful in terms of who makes the rules, who follows them, and the absurdity of principle over common sense. 

Avid readers tend to read a lot of books and many of them are the same. If you read genre murder/mystery novels then you come to expect some of the same common techniques and elements in these books. Novels and stories that stick out to me are the novels that innovate. They aren’t experimental, but they do something I’ve never seen before in a novel or in the genre. Sometimes, that is just a small element of the story. Sometimes, it is the whole book. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd (2018) is a novel that innovates in many different ways. Not only does this book innovate in terms of plot and conflict, it also uses language in innovative ways to close the gap between the unthinkable and the possible. In Alison Walkers review of the book, she describes it as this: “What if your shadow inexplicably held memories? And what if, one day, shadows began to disappear? One day in a busy Indian market a man’s shadow disappears, and with it his memories begin to unravel. Soon, the affliction spreads across the world, as more and more people slowly lose their memories—and with them their ability to reason. We see this catastrophe unfold through the eyes of Ory and his girlfriend, Max, who have gone into hiding in an abandoned hotel. When Max loses her shadow and disappears into the forest, Ory pursues her and heads south, hoping to find Max before she forgets him.” The ideas and language in the novel are so innnovative and compelling that the novel seems like the only place that this idea can happen. While this book has been optioned to the screen (or television), it will be very difficult to handle the range of loss and vision without the narrative and language in the novel. The book is always better, but in this case, the best parts of the novel can never be captured by visuals on the screen. That being said, the loss here is fascinating, overwhelming, and catastrophic. As a result, everything is at stake and the book is filled with the tension of complete calamity, personally, universally, across all realms of thought and feeling. This book is innovative and so exciting to read. And the sense of loss is complete in its effect on the reader. 

The last book on our tour of things lost, is The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (2019). This book not only considers the loss of things to our memory, but it also implies that there is a task-force that enforces that loss. While all these books could fall in and out of dystopian literature, this one feels the most oppressive. The book is explained here: “On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses – until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten. When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovered that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.” This book feels like the dystopian classics, but also has a pointed and ironic sense of our contemporary times of authoritarian vision of oppression in a interconnected vision of being seen through the eyes of the technology and systems. 

Over the course discovering these novels, I found a vision for dystopian novels and ideas. The layers of self-reflected irony is often an element that adds meaning and empathy in a novel. It is clear that classic dystopian novels have meaning because they are close to the surface of our vision of society, relationships, government, and power. Orwell’s 1984 is still a stunning vision. And we often feel like we are moving closer to it rather than moving away. There is also The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood (now a television series), which envisions the darkest places in a society ruled by pain, suffering, and authority. Yet in these three novel, there is a sense that loss isn’t about moving through things that you can’t have, but the existential precipice around the idea that you may never know you had them to begin with. And that power, that fear of forgetting, or letting something go because it doesn’t mean anything any more is where the fear and anxiety derive. 

Is the world shaping these ideas through our vision of the world? Authoritarianism, war, refugees, and environmental disasters have shaped the last fifteen years. And with it has come a different way of seeing the world. But I also think technology has eroded the way we interact in the world. I think technology and the vision of the world is better. But, it also feels like technology is also scrubbing our brains from the act of deep thinking and retaining long term memories. That is not to say people don’t do these things, but we are pushed and shoved along the information highway and we are moved along from one devastating idea or construct to the next. We all know the exhaustion of just being overwhelmed by what is happening. That is also taking a toll on how we see the world. And perhaps these novels are a result of that idea. 

These novels represent some amazing innovation in writing. This article is meant to highlight these fascinating book around theme of memory and loss. But as a writer and someone who is constantly looking for innovation in novels, these book matter. In the end, these visions of what is possible should strike a chord. In terms of writing, we should be looking for the social messages that are woven in these novels. Writing novels are fascinating because they are complex and each element within the book has to connect with another. That being said, without context or memory, we couldn’t read novels. We couldn’t remember how parts connect (or who committed the crime), and these novels remind us through the innovation of memory, there is the unfathomable idea that we could, unknowingly, let it all slip away. 


If you like this article and others on the blog, consider Following this blog on the right hand column. 

Literary Cognitivism: Is Truth in the Proof? (It’s Complicated)

As a teacher I have always found some of the best conversations were based in looking at how things in writing work. And if we don’t understand what dialogue, action, setting, character, motivation, desire – if we don’t have an understanding of those things, writers lose the ability to analyze what they think and believe about their writing. For example, if a writer doesn’t understand conflict in a story, they may not be able to analyze the conflict pitfalls in their writing. Writers then end up writing more drafts, and believing that their is some kind of superstition or creative muse at work because they just don’t know what to work on. That has led me into the concepts of traditional and evolving narratology, (the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception). A big portion of that thinking and pedagogy comes from Mieke Bal and his work in understanding how we look at stories. 

Immersion into narratology can be overwhelming, but literary theory, the more time you spend with them, the more it makes sense. As I’ve tried to absorb narratology, I also dove into the concept of literary cognitivisim and what that means. According to Jukka Mikkonen’s Truth in Literature: The Problem of Knowledge and Insight Gained from Fiction, it is a terms “of how literary works convey truth and insights.” Can literature teach us truth and insight into who we are even though it is fiction? My immediate answer was: yes, of course. But it’s complicated. Some even defend the fact that art can generate something like moments of revelation, understanding, and empathy — but is it truth? 


If we do gain insight from reading a novel – what the heck is it that we gain and is it factual, experiential, or something else? In James Harold’s writing he explains how different cognitivts see these theories. Some of these perspectives are epic and some are just confusing. This is one of my favorites — 

“Another strong cognitivist, Peter Kivy (1997), attempts to solve the problem of evidence in somewhat different way. He argues that in some cases, the reader treats the thematic statements in literature as live hypotheses to be tested.While Kivy does not insist that the evidence against which these hypotheses should be tested is found in the text, he does insist that the testing is part of the appropriate experience of a literary work. The extended experience of engaging with literature – including the hours and days spent with the bookmark in place as well as the days and weeks after one has finished – give the reader opportunity to test the claims in the text against her own experiences and the testimony of others. Thus the work of literature makes a claim that is supposed to true, and the experience of the reader’s engagement with the work provides the evidence for the claim. What is distinctive about Kivy’s view is that he thinks that the literary project of reading includes much more than the ordinary conception of the time spent looking at the page.”

The fact that this perspective puts into play the idea that the writer (through the novel poses the hypotheses) and “the experiences of the reader’s engagement with the work — provides the evidence for the claim.” This concept involves the complexity of a writer / reader cycle where an author-based novels, stories, and constructs in novels (ethics, morality, ideas) are handed off to the reader. While this is a complicated idea, it makes sense that the reader is the one to validate whether a story brings fourth a focused ethical truism based on the writer’s vision and the reader’s own experiences applied to the work. 

Immersing into this concept, it seemed offensive that people took up issues with the fact that reading a novel doesn’t transfer truth and empathy — or at least some experiential understanding of the world through literature. In fact, I couldn’t believe anyone would think otherwise. But it isn’t the transfer of something that is in question. Every theorist and conceptual plan agrees something is transferred with the reading of a novel or short story — the problem is defining what exactly is being transferred. 

Clearly this is the edge where conceptual literary analyse and philosophical meanderings circle one another. It is hard to even think about. Yet, it is important to know what we gain (philosophically or practically) when we read a novel. Are we gaining another experience – living another person’s adventure and assimilating it? What have we gained from reading novels? Have we merely sampled the human condition? And how has one reader’s experience varied from other readers and experiences? 

It reminds me of when I was younger, and I posed to my creative writing class that we are creating (in stories and novels) an approximate version of what is in your head. In The Tao of Physics Fritjof Capra describes the distortion of a map based on the round sphere to a flat surface. And how while it represents the same concept, it is distorted because of the transference from a round shape to a flat shape. He shows the example of “drawing a square on a plane and on a sphere” (64). I called this an approximate map (accurate to a point). They are distorted, but they are still maps transferred to different versions. And therefore, what is created in fiction is not the writers vision, but an approximate vision, story, novel, idea. And people will see it based on their lives. Writers know they have to edit and revise their work and make every sentence count. Yet, the subjectivity of those ideas just have to be convincing enough for the reader to believe them and buy into the story based on their willingness to apply it to their own vision of it. And that transfer of the approximate map is exactly what James Harold is explaining above when he says that the writer creates the hypothesis — while the reader solves the equation on their own set of proofs. 




Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of physics: An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism. Shambhala Publications, 2010.

Harold, James. “Literary Cognitivism.” (2015).

Mikkonen, Jukka. “Truth in Literature: The Problem of Knowledge and Insight Gained from Fiction.” Narrative Factuality: A Handbook (2019): n. pag. Print.

They’re Only Words – Yes and No


Sometimes books find a way into your life and you wonder how they synched into your life so well. We picked Citizen by Claudia Rankine as our common read on campus. It was the right book at the right time. Not only did the students have an open dialogue about race and social issues, we also spoke about the importance and relevance of language in the way we speak, socialize, and even protest. It was very powerful. And then the election happened. And strangely – it was the students who were well prepared. While there was shock and despair – Citizen as a book helped us have a very difficult conversation. We had talked about racism, inequality, society, power, protest, and hate. And then we had to talk about how all those ideas culminated into how we were feeling after the election. And it got me thinking about this. 

One of the things I hate about myself is the part of me that just accept things because there is nothing I can do about it. On election day night, I went to bed shocked and sad. But I also was saying – there is nothing you can do about it. I didn’t want to tell my kids. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk to my students about it. And I sat and simmered. 

Slowly, I woke up, along with other people and realized how absurd this all seems. But there is a part of me that just says – okay accept things. I hate that part of me. I wish I would just flip out and say something I will regret. I wish I could pull out the plug that stops me. I never speak out when it is the right time. I always speak out after, or save it up and dump it on someone who can’t effect change.

This election has might have pulled the plug for me. If this president, this election, this future is where we are going — why hold back and sit passively for something to happen? 

What is that? Professionalism? Fear of being rude? Do I lack some kind of courage or morality? I feel like I am shedding this acceptance. But I need to define it and find out what it is that keeps me quiet or accepting of these things. 

In an article A Pedagogy of Refusal: Re-Essentializing the Word “No” in the Trump Era linked here, sharpened the point clearly for me. It was acceptance in the form of “yes, I will accept this.”  

“We must instead, he said, distance oursleves from our propensity to say “yes” and re-essentialize refusal into our social systems to affect change. When I said, “yes,” even passievely, to Trump’s presidency that day with my pricipal, I had denied the humanity of all of the people whose maringalization Trump will perpetuate. I am complicit in their oppresion.

We live in a society where saying “yes” is more important than saying “let’s think this through.” A society where “I agree” is more acceptable than “I challenege you to think differently.” Our operation under a pedagogy of acceptance has brought us to where we are today; our constant “yes”ing has left us with a president who has never been told “no.”


I suppose I’ve woken up quite a bit from it all. I don’t want to watch it. I want to do something about it, and it feels like there is nothing to be done. I suspect that things are going to be difficult for the incoming president. But I also think that we have to continue to not accept where we are going and make every single step like walking on glass. 

But it has also snapped me out of a malaise that things are fine, even when they don’t work in my favor. I don’t accept things for what they are. 

“We must bring refusal back into the American dialogue. We must make statements like “I cannot accept that” as powerful as “I agree with you.” We must re-essentialize the word “no” into the American vocabulary and psyche, and say it fiercely to all of the forces who have brought about the election of Trump.” 

It will take me some time, but I will have to practice and be diligent in my use of the word “no”. I know it is difficult. But I will gladly shed the part of me that I hate the most — the part that nods my head and waits for someone else to say something. 

One of the things I spoke to students about all semester in discussing race, social issues and Citizen by Claudia Rankine, was that language is nothing but symbols and sounds. But they can change us. They can spur protests, movements, solve problems, and bring on chaos. Words start wars. Words bring about the birth of a country. We all saw this semester that it will take courage to say the things we believe, and for that will be better people, in a better community. 

I still continue to listen to Trump and realize that there isn’t anything there – no sincerity, no reality, no truth. Words are don’t matter – until they cut, push, and move people to action.