Pumpkin Spice Books: Fall & Memory

So I just happened to be scrolling through book blogs the other day and the amount of Fall-themed booklists and “Seasonal Reads” type posts that met my eyes was astounding. At first it all hit me rather like the introduction of the Pumpkin Spice drinks every year—a momentary feeling of nostalgia and desire, before remembering they’re overrated. So it was with the fall book posts. I felt completely satisfied, perhaps even a little superior, to carry on without catering to the trend of themed posts by specifically seeking out fall reads.

            Until two days ago: a particularly autumnal-feeling day, the wind sending a continuous shower of multi-coloured leaves across the lawn.

            The scene: my living room.

            The set: chair, lamp, and bookshelf.

            The time: night.

            I sat, with other things I should have been doing, mug of tea in one hand, my head irresistibly turning toward my lamp-lit bookshelves. It took me a while to realise what, without any previous intention of reading a book, I was looking for: a cozy, autumnal book to curl up with.

            Suddenly, with this as my mission, I betook myself to the bookshelves for a closer look. What books had I read in fall? What books felt like fall? What books took place in fall? I needed one now! Not for the story, not for the sake of reading something that I’d been meaning to read, but for the aesthetic. For the feeling it would presumably induce.

            So what is it about seasonal reading?

            It’s about memory, immersion, and integration.

            I’ve mentioned before that physical books have the potential to carry strong memory triggers: you remember when you read a certain passage, where you were, what you were doing, or any number of other details. If it was book you enjoyed, the place or time may also have a positive colouring in your memory for no other reason. Re-reading the book then can partially recreate the first experience, seemingly transporting us back to that place and time when we first read it.

But, wait. Isn’t the standard of a good book supposed to be how immersive it is? How it transports you out of reality, so you forget where you physically are? Yes. And no. Certainly, a good book will draw you into it for periods of time when you are completely immersed. However, immersion isn’t a state that can be held long. Whether it is something in the book that inadvertently triggers an unrelated thought, something in your physical space that distracts you, or even just the decision to take a break, immersion is frequently broken. Particularly over the course of a lengthy book, it is normal to break immersion many times even in the most gripping tale. But, despite Poe’s assertions to the contrary, immersion-breaking isn’t always a bad thing. Because of what can happen when you come out of the story: integration.

You may have had the experience yourself, or have heard others say something to the effect of “It took me a while to get into it,” referring to how easily a book or other media got hold of their attention. There is always a transitional period, short or long, between us settling down to pay attention to something and actually achieving some level of focussed concentration, or immersion. I’ve been trying to mark first-year English papers while watching my four-year-old nephew, and it takes me a painful amount of time to surface from what I’m concentrating on to listen to his (frequent) questions, as well as then to get back into the same level of focus on the papers after I’ve finished engaging with him for those couple of seconds it takes to answer. The back and forth is exhausting. Which is why the less times the immersion in reading is broken, the less taxing it is.

But, sometimes, oftentimes, there must be a certain amount of breaks. And they are not all bad. Because, due to the very thing that makes them irritating if they happen too frequently, immersion breaks can make a story even more integrated into your memory; surfacing from a story takes a bit of time, when you disengage your immediate senses and reorient to your physical surroundings. It’s like a video game autosaving—the last thing in the book gets written into your memory so that when you pick it up again, your brain can “resume play,” so to speak. The last echoes of the story are still being processed in your mind while you reconnect to reality, which partially integrates it into your physical experience of that moment.

And that’s when the memory, immersion, integration cycle comes full circle. It’s the mirror image of what happens when a book retains memory of a place—a physical place and its characteristics can also retain impressions of a book. That’s why seasonal reading has such appeal: people realise there is something about a familiar time (fall) that affects their experience with books. People’s falls carry with them echoes of enjoyable reading experiences, so they want to recreate them. Because if reading a good book can influence your memory of a time and place, then reading at a historically good time or place (for you) should similarly influence the experience with a new book, too.

So, have your “Pumpkin Spice lattes,” and enjoy them, for no other reason than because they feel like fall. Because sometimes you just need a little seasonal…atmosphere.   

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