The Last Book I Loved: I Remember

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When I read a few dozen I Remembers in Joe Brainard’s I Remember, my brain starts mining itself without me telling it to. The canonical memories come first, but these set my brain on course to dustier ones it usually has no occasion to recall.

Most memories are not useful for survival, so when not forgotten completely, they’re stuffed in rooms that don’t see much light. It’s nice, stumbling on them. Embarrassing and unnerving too, depending on the memory, the way shame can stick. But I didn’t tell my brain to go looking, Brainard did.

Visiting my mom, I told her about the book—didn’t read any to her, just told her—and it sent her off doing it too, I Remembering, which is somehow different than remembering.

The day I began the Personal Essays part of my English composition class, I brought the book in and read three or four pages to my students before sending them off into their notebooks to write their own. I also read this to them, from Rod Padgett’s afterward, on the teaching of I Remember as a form: “…the most successful versions of I Remember—both by children and adults—show the same qualities as Joe’s original: clarity, specificity, generosity, frankness, humor, variety, a rhythm that ebbs and flows from entry to entry, and the sense that no memory is insignificant. Even the smallest memory can exert a mysterious tug…” Whether they actually write their personal essays by those words is another thing, but if they did! A’s all around.

A good personal essay lives and dies by those tactile, seemingly minor recollections that this book is nothing but. The shift from the very specific to the universal (from the skirt and sweater Susie Barnes always wore to “doing other things with straws besides drinking through them”) and the way we see ourselves in both. I also read to my students from Padgett’s excerpt of Brainard’s letter to Waldman: “I mean, I feel like I am everybody. And it’s a nice feeling. It won’t last.”

There’s a lesson for me in this book about not over-thinking/over-intellectualizing my own writing—“don’t mean so much” is how Frederick Barthelme puts it—and how these things are unrelated to working your ass off, as Brainard clearly did. It’s about where you’re putting in the work, about cutting a sentence aimed for the “Oh, that is clever” part of the brain and leaving in, “I remember bongo drums,” bare and beautiful, meaning just what it says.

A writer can waste a lot of time aspiring to timelessness by censoring references not enough readers will get. The kick I get out of Brainard’s nod to the movie “Seven Brothers for Seven Brides,” this goofy childhood favorite of my wife’s. And if I hadn’t seen it? I’d have moved on and let that be a moment between Brainard and some other reader. There’s plenty to go around.


Gabe Durham is the author of the novel Fun Camp and the editor of Boss Fight Books, a series of books about video games. He and his projects have been featured in The Onion A.V. Club, Nylon Guys Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, BuzzFeed, and Kotaku. He lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →