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The Reading Life: Journey through the past

March 18, 2011 | 12:10 pm

Iremember_brainardThis is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

Last week, in Manhattan, a friend reminded me about Joe Brainard's odd memoir "I Remember," originally published in 1970, and expanded and reissued several times between then and Brainard's death of AIDS in 1994.

The idea behind "I Remember" is as profound as it is simple: to reconstruct the past as a series of short, loosely connected paragraphs, each one beginning with the phrase "I remember." The effect is that of a kind of pillow book, a collection of diaristic aphorisms that together add up to a life.

"I remember bunk beds," Brainard tells us; "I remember rick-rack earrings." But he also remembers what it was like to come of age in the 1950s and early 1960s (he was born in 1941) as a gay man, an artist stuck in a provincial city (Tulsa, Okla.), and what it meant when he finally got out. In that sense, the particularity of his "I remembers" can't help but blur into the universal, speaking for every one of us who ever felt misunderstood or out of place, who ever tried to piece together a vision of the world and how it operates from the fragments of experience and perception that make up our memories.

As it turns out, "I Remember" became part of my own chain of memory last week -- and not just because I hadn't thought about the book in years. Even now, my friend mentioned, more than 40 years after it first appeared, Brainard's memoir remains prominently displayed by the cash register at St. Mark's Bookshop in the East Village. So after we finished talking, I wandered up from his place in TriBeCa, walking the dark, post-industrial streets where, having grown up in the city, I confront my ghosts at every turn.

"I remember," I thought, aping Brainard, "hearing Game 4 of the 1973 World Series in snippets from a succession of storefront radios as I brought the page proofs of the junior high school literary magazine to the printer"; "I remember the gleam of rain on cobblestone." Here we have a vivid metaphor for the way literature shapes us, gets inside us, for the way the things we read become a lens through which we view our lives.

At St. Mark's, sure enough, "I Remember" was next to the register, just as my friend had said it would be. I bought a copy to read on the subway -- a nice whisper of continuity in a world of constant chaos, a reminder of the power of memory. Here, beneath the streets of the city in which I was raised, a city in which I haven't lived for 20 years, I immersed in Brainard's memory as a way of living in my own.

"I remember walking down the street, trying not to step on cracks," I read, and thought: I remember doing that, as well.

-- David L. Ulin