Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts

Charles Fernyhough. Harper, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-223789-7

Psychologist Fernyhough (A Thousand Days of Wonder) aims to debunk the myth that memory is purely retrospective—memories, he argues, are not “heirloom[s] from the past” summoned back for display in the present; they are momentary reconstructions. Fernyhough contends that neuroscience is crucial in solving the puzzle of memory, but his primary means of shedding light on the topic is through personal and historical anecdotes. This tactic can feel contrived at times, but it makes his examination welcoming and accessible to lay readers. His analysis is wide-ranging, touching on everything from the mundane lapses in memory that make a labyrinth of a familiar city, to brain damage and traumatic memories mediated and distorted by intense emotions. He also covers a wide swath of literary and historical ground, including the olfactory and musical remembrances of Proust and memory exercises of the Middle Ages. What is abundantly clear throughout is that remembering has always been a deeply imaginative process. Few of Fernyhough’s points stand out as groundbreaking, but his notion of memory as “a way of being with other people” is a refreshingly social take on an intensely personal experience. Agent: David Grossman, David Grossman Literary Agency (U.K.) (Mar.)