When You Forget What You Read

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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?


Bonfire of the Vanities is a great example. I also read it one time, 20 years ago, and I still remember tons of details from it. (and no, I never saw the movie.)
Maybe the quality of the written word has something to do with retention?


I agree with the author that- wait, what was the article about again, I don't remember?


A taste of Alzheimers?


The heavier the subject is, the more you should write it concisely. My favorite is this one: http://theunitedpersons.org/constitution


Analysis key in remembering written words. Taking notes, dissecting, predicting, and interpolating lead to more associations to time and place in reality, and the organization of facts and events in the book/journal. I have forgotten a lot of what I read in college, but I still remember lectures and papers that provide mnemonic clues to the actual content of the work.


I saw these highlighter pens on Oprah. Some guy at 3M dreamt them up and they have tabs built into them, so you can highlight and then tab. I have one for quotes and one for good points in two different colors.

I don't remember what I read, but I can now easily find what I thought was good before.


Maybe the bottom line is not remembering the plot or the books summary, but to remember the ideas and the feeling that you felt when you read it


If I forget anything in life does that mean that the investment was wasted? If I valued all the moments in my life purely for their investment gains I would live a very depressing and boring life. I forget much of my experience. But I remember the enjoyment during the experience. So for example I do not remember all the meals I had in Rome, but I remember enjoying all of them regardless of how much they cost. I remember enjoying a particular author. If I purely needed calories I could go to Rome and spend my food money on boiled rice and some vitamins. Why go to the museums since I cannot remember each painting I have seen? Why go to the movies if I cannot remember each plot? Why have dinner with friends if I do not remember each conversation after 2 months time and do not some how make money from the time spent? Who wants to live such a life?


I got into a big argument with one of my professors over a scene in Faulker's "As I Lay Dying" - over 20 years ago. I honestly can't remember how the book ended, but I can vividly recall the scene over which we argued as if I had just witnessed it yesterday.

I am a slow reader, but I tend to have good recall. I can't mentally afford the luxury of re-reading books because there are so many that I would still like to read. I keep books around to help remind me of what's in them. As I move from place to place and pack and unpack the books, I have flashbacks of what the books were about, where I was when I read them, and who I was as a person at the time. Kind of like looking at snapshots in a photo album.


I can't even remember the comments posted here, now!

Loraine Antrim

In the end, it's all about the messaging. Whether a book, a PPT presentation, a speech...if the message is memorable, relevant, unusual or repeated, we tend to remember it. Loraine Antrim, Core Ideas Communication


One theologian said that he wished that he had never read the Book of John...because that way he could read it all again for the first time.

Perhaps there is a grace in forgetting. We are enabled to either leave behind that which was not so wonderful, or else we can discover and savor it's beauty yet again.

The best book purchase I ever made was the Complete Works of O. Henry...for $5 (at a flea market). It has hundreds of short stories, each with O. Henry's noted twists. It is impossible (at least for me) to keep all of those stories in my mind. Thus, a story that I read two years ago gets so faded that it is a joy to read yet again.

For ME, the Bible has tended to stick best. Perhaps because for years it was a daily practice, but most likely because I believed (and still do) that it is spiritually important.


Several years ago I found myself having this problem, so since 2007 I have kept a list with the title and author of each book I have read along with a 2-3 sentence comment on what the book was about and whether or not I liked it.

Has done wonders in terms of keeping me from buying books I have already read, as well as keeping track of authors I like.


I read a lot and forget a lot of what I've read. I don't see this as a problem as I can always go back and read a book I've forgotten again. I do find, pretty obviously, that a second reading helps keep the book's details fresh in my mind.

Incidentally, my 2010 new year's resolution was that the next 30 books I read would be by 30 different authors, none of whom I had read before. While I'm sure I'll forget some of them, I know that this will remain a standout year for reading. Just five books to go...

Alexander Velazquez

- It is almost never poorly spent, because my choices in terms of literary work is very selective and being pretentious with one's self means demanding more from everything

-The investment is in the quality of the books I read. The investment is well worth it, because of the interior joy I feel when I read something really exquisite, lovely that really touches me.

- Yes, i forget, but even if I forget the slightest details, i have the optimal solution for every book I read: Notes, maintaining notebooks, with everything incites and excites you about a book. After reading a book, re-read it note down everything you like, and what "got to you":)

I, am a so-so accomplished book author and am intersted in self-publishing my book. any ideas?
I found this useful: http://pipeno.pipeno.com/Article/Tutorials-and-How-Tos/Launching-a-Pipeno-Site-and-Self-publishing-Your-Book



This is what Patrick Süskind calls the Literary Amnesia:

What good is reading, what is the use for example to read this book, when I know that in a short while I will have forgotten until its title ?
(Amnésie littéraire, trad. Bernard Lortholary, p.82, in Un combat et autres récits, Livre de Poche n?14192)

His conclusion is that although we do forget, we are subtly changed by our readings - though we don't really notice it since as we change, our judgement and references also change, and it becormes hard to have a clear perspective on how we were before.


I feel like I've read this before ...


I used to have a steel trap memory. As I age my memory (long and short term) has begun to fade. Now its ... wait what was the question?

Steve Nations

I also remember much about Bonfire of the Vanities, even 20 years later. On the other hand, I couldn't have told you a thing about LeCarre's "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" even 10 minutes after finishing it.

I think that @19 Michael F. Martin hit the nail on the head with, "It's not about the subject matter, it's about how engaged you are with it."

For me, it's a matter of wanting to and being able to put myself in the story. If I can engage with the characters, relate to them (in good or bad ways), and if I have a sense of wanting to be in the story then I remember much more.

Paul Cote

I have noted this tendency in my own reading, as well. I have gotten to the point where if I could remember 1/2 of what I've forgotten, and be twice as smart as I am!

To remedy the situation, I try to be more aware of what I am reading as I read it. I stop to ponder what I've read (mostly non-fiction, history...) and try to paraphrase it in my mind.

I flag insightful passages, and then go back to them later. I re-read portions of books, sometimes whole books, to try to recapture their essence.

I don't know how many times I've read the end of "One Hundred Years of Solitude", and it always amazes me...would it be so if I didn't forget something about it?