My partner and I are both book nerds – we met in a bookstore – but we don’t have much overlap in reading. He leans towards science fiction and horror, and I read YA, literary fiction and queer lit of all genres. When we both read the same book, it’s always an interesting experience for me. I tend to delve into books and take in the general emotions I get from the story or the big ideas she explores. I’m a character based reader while my partner is more story based. It can point out action holes that I wouldn’t have noticed even if I read it again. Plus, he can actually remember the books he reads.
When asked about a book I’m reading right now, I can give you an overview of the pros and cons. I’ll tell you what I think is the most important aspect of the story, how it deals with sensitive topics, and what kind of reader would enjoy it. Ask me about this book in a month – sometimes a week – and I will have no idea what you are talking about. This isn’t limited to books: I forget the names of the main characters from any movie or TV show I’ve seen half a dozen times. Let’s face it, I forgot my boss’s name 5 years ago. (And not for a minute either. For at least an hour.)
This makes it difficult for us to discuss books that we have both read because if it is not recent reading I will not remember what it is referring to. I know my general impressions of a book, but I certainly won’t keep any plot points. We once read House of Leaves for an impromptu bookseller-book club. I finished it within a week. He finished it in a month. He had a fully worked out theory of the great narrative of history. Three weeks later, all I could remember was the tactile impression of reading, rotating the book in circles to follow the spiraling lines. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to decipher it on this level. Even as I write this post, I worry that I’ve written something like this before and I just can’t remember …
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I don’t mean to imply that my partner is a better reader than me. We just approach books differently. I will argue about the philosophical foundations of a story, or how it reinforces or challenges existing stereotypes. We look at stories through our own lenses, which makes it all the more interesting to exchange these thoughts after reading (or seeing) the same story. However, after these conversations, I often wonder why I continue to prioritize reading when I don’t seem to be absorbing much of it. What’s the point of reading if you don’t remember anything?
I can’t remember the books I read anymore than the meals I ate. Still, they made me.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
On the one hand, you have the Emerson approach: whether or not I remember a book has nothing to do with whether it affects me. The novels we read make us more empathetic. The stories we hear help us build a better understanding of the world and the people in it. The ideas that books communicate interact with everything else that’s swirling around in my head. There is no unraveling, but they are still there and shape my thoughts and actions.
Of course, reading is not just about building our knowledge or even becoming more empathetic. I don’t have the same struggle if I don’t remember TV shows because I realize they are for entertainment. Getting lost in a book without expecting it to make you a better person is valuable. Besides, the human brain can only store so much information! I don’t need it to remind myself of every plot point in every book I’ve ever read. If it means leaving room for other things, maybe it is a good thing that I am not.
There are so many good reasons to read, and most of them don’t require perfect retrieval of every book. With my Swiss cheese memory, I took to heart that the brain is a great place to make creative connections and come up with new ideas, but it’s a pretty bad place to store information. There are many things that our brain can still do better than the average computer. So why do we prioritize them when they’re trying to do something a piece of paper can do better?
Even if I forget every word when I close a book, I will keep opening it. For one thing, it makes reading it a lot more exciting! But more importantly, for me, letting go is an exercise. My strength as a reader does not lie in precisely recalling previous books – or even previous chapters. That may make epic fantasies and mysteries difficult, but that doesn’t mean my reading has no value.
However, if you are not ready to let go and want to improve your reading recall process, then you may be interested in a simple solution to help you forget what you read!