When You Forget What You Read
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?