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A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  184 ratings  ·  44 reviews
“One of our true superstars of nonfiction” (David Foster Wallace), Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, offers a playful and inspiring defense of forgetfulness by exploring the healing effect it can have on the human psyche.

We live in a culture that prizes memory—how much we can store, the quality of what’s preserved, how we might better document
ebook, 384 pages
Published June 18th 2019 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Oct 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
not really sure about the lukewarm takes, I thought this was excellent. The format is certainly unusual for a work of nonfiction - it sort of imitates (to me) David Markson’s “This Is Not a Novel” series, and the format itself is a practice of memory and forgetting. Some of the takes were definitely more interesting than others, but it’s an incredible new way of writing, this probably means I have to go and read The Gift now.

One of my great regrets in reading this is not taking Prof Hyde’s creat
Jim Coughenour
Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art is my favorite book on the once-fashionable subject of “creativity.” It’s a sparkling example of what it claims to analyze, playful, wide-ranging, trangressive, inventive. Lewis Hyde’s new book is quite different — it’s an extended meditation on the ethics of remembering/forgetting, a collage of history, mythology, anthropology and imagination. The apparently simple question: what does it mean to remember? Or to forget? becomes an invocation to ...more
Robert Wechsler
Truly thought-provoking. Consisting of short pieces of all kinds that slowly accumulate, that present various sides not of arguments, but of concepts whose center involves forgetting and remembering, this is a wonderful buffet of ideas and thought experiments. There are sections where the pieces consciously work together to consider specific examples, but I most enjoyed the pieces that stand by themselves. Because of this, the first half worked for me more than the second half, but others will l ...more
Veronica Ciastko
Dec 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
really good. sometimes this book was a little heady but the great thing is that it's just these little vignettes so if one doesn't make sense, the next one probably will. i dogeared nearly half the book for quotes/ideas i wanted to write down. there's so much good stuff to uncover in here about memory, time, God, and the human condition. after reading one of the sections i laid on my bed and listened to a song that feels viscerally attached to a moment in time almost 10 years ago and i felt real ...more
Kent Winward
Jun 29, 2019 rated it liked it
It might have been four stars, but I forgot.

This was an interesting exercise in collage. You can access things differently through this type of impressionistic snippet writing. I enjoy David Shields takes more, but both seem to be cut from a similar genre that has emerged to address this current technological thrust that makes everything, including this review a pebble into the roaring river of content. Contrast this with all the things we cannot forget and that is the sense I pulled from Hyde'
Feb 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of the most intellectually stimulating books I've read in a long while; it put me back in the days when I was a philosophy student, thinking always about big, overarching, challenging ideas. Lewis Hyde, I learned, is among other things a poet, and this is evident in the mode in which the book is written: short "essays" anywhere from a third of a page to six pages (the book, and thus the pages, are small) clustered together in sections titled Myth, Self, Nation and Creation (my favor ...more
Scott Eggerding
Oct 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found myself reading this book slowly. I kept it by my stationary bike, reading 8-10 pages a day. The only problem is I couldn’t get a sustained workout in—I kept stopping to highlight passages or write notes. I’ve spent a number of years researching the literary structures of memory and invented memory. Never did I consider the importance and value of forgetting. I expect I will pick this book up again and read it through with an entirely new perspective and context. This is one of those book ...more
Vincent Scarpa
Jan 04, 2021 rated it really liked it
“If there is a ‘work of forgetting,’ it has to involve claiming or creating agency such that you, the people saddled with history, can work on the past rather than have the past work on you. When it comes to collective memory — the kind that calls for a national historic site — you can’t begin to remember in a way that allows you to forget until the collective itself recognizes and responds to the history at hand. Only then can you both claim an identity as your own and enjoy the privilege of fo ...more
James Kelly
Jan 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a great book, a fun and insightful read. An episodic discourse on what it means to forget, remember, and live in between these two states of forgetting and remembering - to just be, and to be well, significant and effective in our humanness.
Robert Case
Jul 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating exploration of memory, myth, and culture.
Agnes DiPietrantonio
Sorry but I lost interest half way through. Maybe it was the querky format
Arabelle Sicardi
Dec 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book and bookmarked so many different pages. Something I'll be returning to for years to come, I think. ...more
Mark Plakias
Jan 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is an important book for many reasons, and at times, magical. That said, not everyone will have the patience for its journal-like construction, and be open enough to the deep currents Hyde is tapping into. The book is built of notes, generated by quotations he has come across in his voluminous reading of the canon of western literature -- from Plato to Proust. These page-length micro-essays are grouped into 4 or 5 main chapters, the first of which is Myth. So its the topic of Forgetting in ...more
Jun 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book, which is more of collection of mini-essays than a continuous narrative, looks at the function of forgetting in human society. We might think that memory and remembering are far more important to us, but Lewis Hyde shows us how many things we need to forget in order to be able to live with other people, to tell a coherent story, to simply get on with things. In the Hyde style that I love, he uses stories and examples from ancient and modern civilizations, literature, and his own life t ...more
Jul 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book held me rapt as it developed its themes of memory and forgetting. Some of the themes were more developed and others were tantalizingly fragmentary. Because a number of other authors and thinkers have plumbed these depths, this work surveys their thoughts and presents them at points in the ongoing presentation that help to build understanding. The apparent paradox of this book is that it is more about remembering than about forgetting. But it makes the critical point that memory is scul ...more
Sep 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
A nearly perfect book. I did not especially like the subtitle "Getting Past the Past" which makes it sound like a self-help book when in fact it's just a beautiful musing on the nature of memory and forgetting. It gets a bit weedy at times but otherwise is so profound and thought-provoking. ...more
Matt Sautman
May 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Embodying a collage form of the personal essay, Hyde uses A Primer for Forgetting to interrogate how forgetfulness permeates throughout human societies, though his focus primarily centers on American experiences. A Primer for Forgetting extols forgetfulness as a means for cultivating peace and encouraging growth, but this book also complicates this notion further by contrasting positive forms of forgetfulness with the kinds of erasure that normalize systematic oppressions in everyday societies. ...more
Steven Borowiec
Jan 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
I'm a journalist who covers East Asia, countries where disagreements over the past still prevent cooperation in the present day and people are arguing over things that happened decades ago. In interviewing the activists and politicians involved in these movements, I constantly hear about the need to remember, to commemorate what happened, that until there is consensus on the past, and everyone's grievances have been addressed to their satisfaction, it is impossible to move forward.

I read this bo
Antonio Delgado
Dec 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Lewis Hyde does what most theorist and critics ignore about memory, that is full of forgetfulness. What to do with forgetfulness and what is forgetfulness are just a few of the many implications openly discuss in this great book. From mythological accounts and philosophical inquiry to personal and historical traumatic events to the art of creating out of habitual circumstance, Hyde’s text encourages more questions. He does not intend to fill the gaps, but to create more gaps. In doing that, the ...more
Laura Linart
Sep 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
How can a country divided heal? We carry memories burdened with shadows so long that they darken our present. Here, Lewis Hyde offers a few ideas for how we might begin the work of reconciliation, and eventually be at peace with our past. The book is written in four parts—Myth, Self, Nation, and Creation—and structured almost like a collage, where short, seemingly unrelated meditations on the subject of forgetting follow upon one another. Weaving his way through the material of mythology, psycho ...more
Jun 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: amazon-reviewed
A Primer for Forgetting by Lewis Hyde is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late June.

4 parts, labeled as ‘Notebooks’, about the philosophic qualities of forgetting and memory, plus poetry, literature, mythology & tribal lore, English definition of language-specific terms having to do with such, diary entries of the author’s dreams, photos of objects, artifacts, and works of art, and forgetting or lapse of memory within a tragic/criminal act or on behalf of a nation toward its own history.
Jan 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
“Memories that endure no matter how our contexts change can be a hindrance, not a boon, if the history they carry forward obscures the new setting rather than illuminating it.”

Some interesting nuggets here and plenty of thought provoking theses to wrap your mind around, if sometimes a little too tortuous for me. If this is an experiment to test that forgetfulness can be more useful than memory (as Hyde posits), then he more than proves his hypothesis. I could have done without the 4th notebook,
Charles Bookman
Jan 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Remembering and forgetting are two sides of the same coin. “A Primer for Forgetting” is a collection of four essays on the importance of forgetting in myth—what a society holds dear and what it chooses to forget; the self—an exploration of “The waters of life and the waters of forgetfulness”; the Nation—an exercise in selective remembering (whose America is it that we want to make great again?); and creation—which is more powerful, remembering or forgetting? Each essay is capped with a set of ap ...more
Aug 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this book largely because I *loved* The Gift. The style here is quite different—more of a collage but not bothersome to me anyway as I’ve read some suggest.
Still, I’m not convinced by the central thesis regarding the importance of forgetting. Certainly Hyde has a nuanced and more complex approach to this—not suggesting precisely that one just erase traumatic history. Nonetheless, it made me uncomfortable in the context of what I see as the importance of bearing witness. I understand his
Nov 17, 2020 rated it liked it
Much more somber in tone than the exuberant Trickster and Gift (some of my favorite nonfiction reads). The fragmented form is really In right now in creative nonfiction — it’s like the entire creative class has PTSD. Is it Trump?

As a result this took a while for me to read, and just as the ending suggests: the form prompts a kind of forgetting. Had I muscled through over a shorter timespan, perhaps I’d have remembered something in it. But over months of snatching sections here and there, which i
Mike Errico
Jan 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
A “thought experiment” that looks at the role of forgetting in our lives via a series of interconnected essays. In short: we pay for cloud storage and hard drives and digital archiving; the internet remembers and sells every move we make; but in many ways, forgetting is the more creative, clarifying, and forward-thinking choice. The essays give the whole piece a kind of staccato feel, but overall, I think the experiment worked incredibly well. Hyde makes forgetting cool again.
Feb 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
I have enjoyed everything Hyde writes. This is no different.

Written almost as journal entries, Hyde is suggesting (not arguing, as he puts it, as he didn't want to build an argument for this book) that letting things go (not everything, and not to the detriment of others) is healthy, even crucial, for living a life we can stand to be a part of. It strikes me as a still waters/great depth kind of read that I suspect will reward reconsideration from time to time.
Jan 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2020
My will to finish this slowed after seeing Hyde read from it a few weeks after I started. While conceptually interesting, it failed to build to much, and mostly wandered around ruminating without direction for most of its pages. Eventually it turned into the book I would read a few pages of to fall asleep at night, slipping away in the end.
Mar 02, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
incredible work about memory and deliberate forgetting. divided into four parts: myth, self, nation, creation. 'nation' i skimmed a lot, but the other three were riveting. it was kind of like a devotional in that way: one or two pages from one source about one aspect of memory, then another. but all interwoven into the larger idea of the book.

May 30, 2020 rated it did not like it
One of the worst books I've ever started to read (I couldn't finish it which rarely happens). Maybe I misunderstood what it was about when I bought it. It consisted solely of quotes from different authors regarding dealing with difficult issues from the past and whether to forget or not. I was expecting a self-help book. ...more
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171 likes · 47 comments
“Every act of memory is an act of forgetting. The tree of memory set its roots in blood. To secure an ideal, surround it with a moat of forgetfulness. To study the self is to forget the self. In forgetting lies the liquefaction of time. The Furies bloat the present with the undigested past. “Memory and oblivion, we call that imagination.” We dream in order to forget.” 0 likes
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