Recently, I’ve come across a couple of details that delighted my imagination and nudged me into an inquiring mood. Just what is it about certain details that cause us to remember them years and sometimes even decades later?
The first detail that impressed me recently came from an episode of the Reply All podcast in which we learn about “Dr.” John Brinkley, an early 20th century charlatan who uses the radio to amass wealth and gain a huge following. The detail that caught my attention was the following: Brinkley’s widow, who lives in a Texas mansion that she can no longer afford to heat, sleeps at night under a pile of her old fur coats.
The symbols of her former wealth now serve as her final protection against cold, sleepless nights. When I first heard this detail, it struck me as the sort of thing I would have loved to have made up and included in my own fiction. It’s such a poignant reversal of circumstances. Also, there’s something intrinsically compelling about human struggle. (In fact, all the details I mention in this post deal with struggle of one sort or another.)
The second detail comes from Bruce Chatwin’s travel book In Patagonia. The author visited an estancia in Tierra del Fuego where he encountered a white-haired Englishwoman, Miss Nita Starling, who was outspoken, adventurous, and in charge of the garden on the property. The detail in question involves a lifelong regret of hers. While in Hong Kong and fending off a mugger, a young man whom she recognized as more terrified than herself, she nearly got the knife off of him. She remarked, wistfully, on how she would have loved it for a souvenir.
This detail kickstarts my imagination. How amazing and surprising would it be for an old woman to show you her souvenir knife from a thwarted mugging? I imagine myself sipping tea in the drawing room with Miss Nita Starling. She gets up, after telling of the mugging, to retrieve the weapon from her mantle. In my mind, the handle is a faded black with yellow scuffs while its blade possesses a sinister curve.
Lastly, I’ll share one of my all-time favorites. This detail is from children’s literature. The character Charlie Bucket, from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is from an incredibly poor family. So poor, in fact, that he lives in the same house with his parents and all four grandparents. So poor, in fact, that his grandparents share a single bed, sleeping two to an end.
This Dahl detail is so deliciously brilliant. In a single stroke it establishes the family’s extreme poverty while also achieving something magical for the child reading the story. The grandparent is a near-mythical source of love and support for a child, and little Charlie Bucket, poor though he is, has a surplus of wise and loving guardianship concentrated in a single bed.
While overall the characteristics of the details that stick are likely as varied as we are, it seems from my brief survey that poignance, poetic contrast, amazingness, and brilliance give details extra staying power. Also, I can easily conjure up other lingering details from my experience that have been haunting, tender, or humorous, or that capture the quintessence of some thing. And the list could go on.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the details that remain is that they may say more about us than anything else. Two people who read the same book will usually savor very different parts of it. And so in this way the details that speak to us cannot help but shed light on our own individuality. Getting to know ourselves better, and others, is in the details that resound.