When You Forget What You Read

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: Ian Wilson

Very interesting essay by James Collins (this one, not that one) in the New York Times Book Review about forgetting what you read. The gist:

I have just realized something terrible about myself: I don’t remember the books I read. I chose Perjury as an example at random, and its neighbors on my bookshelf, Michael Chabon‘s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (on the right) and Anka Muhlstein‘s Taste for Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine (on the left), could have served just as well. These are books I loved, but as with Perjury, all I associate with them is an atmosphere and a stray image or two, like memories of trips I took as a child.

This is of interest to me because I read a lot and seem to forget nearly as much. From what I can tell, I tend to remember non-fiction better than fiction; for non-fiction, I tend to remember journalism better than books (at least when it comes to factual details).

That said, one of the books I best remember, even though I only read it once and more than 20 years ago at that, was a novel: The Bonfire of the Vanities. Why? Perhaps because a) it was spectacularly written; b) had a plot full of journalistic touches; and c) I had recently moved to New York and so was particularly taken with its dissection of New York’s socio-political-economic-criminal circles.

So Collins’s essay got me to wondering: what are the characteristics of our reading that best lead to retention? This is clearly a subjective question to a large degree. Let me ask you a few questions, however:

  • What kind of reading do you best remember, and why?
  • What are the characteristics of that reading — whether of the writing itself, of your personal feeling for the material, or the conditions under which you read it?
  • A modern question: do you tend to remember better something you’ve read on a printed page, or on a screen?

My hunch is that one strong cause of retention is talking about your reading with other people. Book groups serve this function but so does the Internet. Publishers may consider the Internet, or the digital revolution at large, to be a scourge; but it plainly facilitates discussion among people who read and care about what they read.

Collins’s essay also suggests a few economic questions:

  • Is the time you spend reading something that you will forget time that is poorly spent?
  • Or are the in-the-moment gains enough to justify the investment?
  • Finally, if you are someone who forgets a lot of what you read, what’s the opportunity cost of all that reading?


Meet FictFact, a tracking website for the things you read, or want to read: http://www.fictfact.com/index.aspx

Shaun G

There is an upside to forgetting books you've read: You get to read them again later as if you are reading them for the first time.

And presumably, if you enjoyed a book enough to keep it around long enough to forget it, you'll enjoy it again the next time around -- so your former self serves as a sort of built-in book-recommendation system.

I bet it's an especially good "fault" to have if you like mystery novels.


The reading I best remember is one that is releant to what I am interested in at the time. For example, when I was preparing for investment banking interviews I remembered everything I read that seemed relevant be it in a newspaper, book or on-line. Equally, when I figured out that my knowledge of history is non-existant I started rememering evrything that fit into that category. So, relevance I think is the most important.

'My hunch is that one strong cause of retention is talking about your reading with other people.' Of coarse retentin increases if you talk to other people about what you read. It reinforces what you read and = studying. If you want to remember something you can always drill it into your head.


We forget most everything that we see, hear, or that happens to us. We forget what we've eaten for breakfast or where we've parked our car or the conversation we had just yesterday. Why would forgetting a book be any different or more special? I don't think there is a bigger opportunity cost associated with reading a book you'll soon forget than doing anything else. As someone who reads a lot, I would not give up my reading for most other things even though I too forget just about everything I read.


I forget the storyline of a lot of what I've read ... over time. In the short term, I am definitely influenced by what I've read. Over the longer term, I lose consciousness of where I obtain a thought or belief gained through reading, but it will influence my thoughts and behaviors.

When I re-read books that I have forgotten, I'm surprised how much of it is familiar to me. It "comes back." I have yet to re-read something and not recognize it.

How I know that my reading isn't lost, is that I frequently have a little knowledge about things that I don't have direct experience with. Not enough to make decisions, but enough to ask questions and enough to search adequately for answers in other materials.


If it is true that time spent doing something that you will forget is poorly spent, 99.9 percent of my life would be a waste.


Ha! You forget much more than just what you read! I peruse my journals from 15 or 20 years ago and I am shocked by how much of my LIFE I have forgotten -- and grateful to my old self for having taken the time to write some of it down.

Eric M. Jones

I've read some books for pleasure several times. (Jack Vance's, "The Dying Earth" for one. Robert Townsend's "Up the Organization for another). But I don't remember much of what I read or even WRITE! for that matter. I agree with other posters that this probably doesn't much matter.

I suggest that the matter is like adding ingredients to a slow stew. Any particular ingredient does not matter so much, but if you add good stuff over a long time, you wind up with a really delicious stew full of richness and flavor.

Many people's brain stew is weak and watery and not very nourishing. Occasionally a carrot will drift by...or a bit of meat of questionably quality. Burp.


Just a quotation from Edouard Herriot (who was once "Président de la Chambre des Députés", and a writer) :

"La culture, c'est ce qui reste quand on a tout oublié " (Culture is what is left once you have forgotten everything).

This goes quite deep, as all good paradoxes.

Ian Kemmish

Is it just me being contrary, or is it obvious that an essayist and author will forget the detail of almost all he has read? He reads a lot more than other people, and he reads for labour, not for pleasure or education.

I can't remember most of the computer code I've ever written and almost none of the computer code I've read, because it was work. But I can remember vivid scenes from books I read forty years ago, because I read for pleasure.


As a visually-oriented person, I tend to remember images (either illustrations on the page or scenes/characters I've created in my head) much more so than any other element of the book. Often times, I can't remember a title or author or plot line, but I'll remember exactly what I thought some of the characters or scenes looked like.

On the other hand, I have friends that remember books better if they hear them read out loud. It's interesting to hear how different people retain information.


Not sure that memory of what one reads and the value of reading can be related - economically or otherwise. What we read is retained. In some fashion or another. It is like any experience. We ingrain that learning and that experience into our being and reading (or any experience) becomes part of us.

High value - economically and otherwise.


if authors forget what they write, what expectations should one have of the reader?

Robert MacLeay

Forgetfulness has survival value.

Retaining facts too easily leaves us vulnerable to misinformation, whether intended or accidental. Just as an opinion survey with a sample size of one is not statistically valid, repetition is the mechanism by which our minds validate data for long term storage.

What you retain from a novel is its geist; you spend hours reading it, and that is what lasts. Individual passages you read once, however, will not stick without powerful emotional impetus. (Do you really need to remember anything from Psycho, other than the shower scene?)

I wonder

I wonder if people forget different kinds of reading.

I remember little of school textbooks, and what I remember is typically the main points, rather than the text or the details. These were read once, and future studies in these subjects always used a different text.

By contrast, I can still quote the entire text of "Dr Seuss' ABCs", which I read (repeatedly, out loud, hundreds of times, to several young children) during the same years. (Accept no imitation: The 'board book' is not the real thing.)

I can tell you the plot details from a novel I read a month ago, but can't tell you anything about the text on the phone bill, which I read half an hour ago. Overall, I like forgetting novels; it lets me re-read them after a couple of years. After about four or five rounds through, however, they start sticking in my brain.

In high school, I read literature with an eye towards picking out and remembering specific bits that were likely to be the subject of tomorrow's lesson. At the start of class, I could quote paragraphs in response to a teacher's question. A month later, the same question might have stumped me. A decade later, I probably wouldn't have recognized the title of the piece.

Something with particular emotional resonance, like a particularly beautiful translation of a Psalm, might stay with me for decades -- and not merely the line itself, but the book, the chapter, the verse number, and its physical location on the page.



I'm guilty of this too, but not for the reasons above.

I learned a few years ago I'm an audible learner - I recall much much more of what I hear than what I read.

I think this is why I was a "B" student at best in school - because the whole system is built around visual learning.

I tried this in practice. I read a book and then listened to the audio book version and I retained 90% more from audio than visual.


I don't remember details of all the hikes I've taken, bike trips I've made, meals I've eaten... But I enjoyed them in the moment of doing.

Likewise, I remember little of the kata I've done or weights I've lifted. Nor, indeed, do I remember the scales I practiced or the math exercises I worked. But the doing developed muscles and skills that remain with me.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

I know friends who can never remember a movie they saw. Others can't remember significant books or literature they read. Or a song they heard.

Never remembering is an opportunity to re-experience media for the first time--again and again! Patients with severe dementia, are not remorseful or sad about their condition. They are in some ways joyful like a child, but cannot function in normal circumstances--like a child.

Forgeting is a new opportunity to relive life's experiences like the Bill Murray Movie: Groundhog Day. Hopefully we get a little better each time.
Carpe Diem! on Monday. Carpe Diem! on Tuesday. Carpe Diem! on Wednesday.
I just heard that song for the first time, for the fifth time!

Michael F. Martin

It's not about the subject matter, it's about how engaged you are with it. If you're actively questioning the premises or thesis, trying to predict the plot, second-guessing the narrative choices, wondering about the character's motivations, &c. -- you remember much more.

You also read much slower.

Tribeca Mike

I have no problem remembering what I've read, but more often than not when recommending a book to someone, I can't remember the darn title.