Forgetting What I Read: A Justification


I've started this post several times and can never quite seem to finish it, perhaps because it's a bit of a sore subject and my thoughts are all over the place on the subject. I've decided that with a small dose of biology (which will be fairly basic and may possibly contain errors... so don't quote me), some common sense, and over-dramatics I might have a little more luck.

Here it goes.

I don't remember the specific details of what I read for very long. It's shameful and frustrating. I'd say within a few weeks of reading a book I start forgetting things like names and other minor details. Within a month or two smaller plot elements are gone. A few months later all that remains is the big ideas, plus a few other aspects I'll mention later. Sometimes aspects vanish faster, sometimes slower.

Luckily, this affliction is fairly common- Ian Crouch wrote about it last year in the New Yorker, as have many others. Nonetheless, as someone who prides themselves in being well-read it's a bit of an issue of intellectual vanity, especially when boasting to someone that you've read a book, loved it, and then having to admit that you can't even remember the main character's first name. 

But again, it's okay. It's natural. It happens to the best of us.

And here's why:

1. When I (or you) read, the memory is stored in our frontal lobe; in order for it to become more permanent it needs to move to other areas of the brain, depending on the type of memory (there are different parts that hold memories relating to the procedural act of reading, the linguistic component, and the emotional side).

2. In order for things to transfer from short-term to long-term storage you have to work with, or rehearse, the actual memory- you can't just read page after page, finish a book and move on to the next one.

3. This idea of rehearsal means you're just accessing, manipulating, or applying the content, multiple times, over an extended period of time. One of my favorite books, and one I truly do remember a great deal of, is Crime and Punishment, from high school. I thank the monster interactive notebook I created for this- activity after activity went into this thing, forcing me to analyze deeply over the course of probably six to eight weeks (I just found it and the teacher wrote "this is either a labor of love or a love of labor"). I'm also much more likely to remember books I teach, discuss at book club, blog more extensively about, take notes on, or watch as movies (which often leads to dialogue or writing). It's just common sense that the more we're exposed to something the longer we retain the information. 

[lather. rinse. repeat.]

4. I read a lot. I talk a lot. I think a lot. I do a lot. If things aren't put into the long-term bank they get pushed aside for new information. Think in terms of a computer- if you have a million windows open on your browser things start slowing down.The logical solution is to exit out of a few sites, prioritizing the important windows. Brains work the same way; when we have a lot going on it selects what to keep active and what to let slip a way. As much as I may love a book, after a week or two of reading it new things are going to take precedence (including whatever book I pick up next). For the record, the implications this has in terms of teaching students are enormous.

But there are things that I do remember.

I always, without a doubt, remember if I like a book or not, and what sort of emotional response I had to it. This is not surprising, as emotion and personal connections can actually help strengthen memory. 

For some reason I can generally comment on the writing style, probably because my brain starts automatically making connections between other authors I have read or books I've already read by the same author.

I can recall the bigger aspects, like what the book is about and where it's set. 

And now I feel better. And you can too.
 Are you a forgetter? Or just me?




  1. Wow. I am definitely with you on the forgetfulness. I am not an avid reader but when I do read books that I love, I have a hard time "selling it" to someone else because I can't seem to remember details of the book. I thought I had bad comprehension skills or something. I remember having that short term memory long term memory conversation with my students and I guess i never internalized it to relate to me.

  2. Oh my goodness, I love this post. I always thought it was just me, but I'm glad to find out that I'm not alone--and that it actually is something that makes biological sense!

  3. Im a forgetter. Taking notes and writing reviews helps, but only to a degree considering how much material I consume. People assum I would kick ass in the Shakespeare category in jeopardy because I read 12 plays in college. Nope. Long gone.

  4. I always forget things like that too, I thought it was just me! To retain information I need graphs and drawings and visual things, if it's just the written word it evacuates my brain pretty quickly (I occasionally have to flick back a bit in a book to recall what I read earlier...especially if I haven't picked it up for a couple of days).

  5. Never really thought about it, but this makes so much sense. I always hate that I forget details of a story later on, so nice to know why that happens. Also a good reminder of 1. why I shouldn't wait to write reviews and 2. how much blogging about books really has helped my own retention. I definitely remember books better that I have blogged about.

    While blogging should never feel like an obligation, it's kind of like homework in a way -- I remember books from school better than a lot of others (even if I didn't like them!), probably because of all the analysis, discussion, and writing unlike when reading for simply for pleasure. Blogging is kind of nice in-between -- not a 10 page paper, but a means nonetheless of better processing what I've read.

  6. I forget a lot of what I read. I'll remember that I loved or hated it but a lot of the intricate details I forget. I always feel really guilty about it but there's nothing I can really do to prevent it.

  7. Glad to know I am not the only forgetter when it comes to books. There are so many books that I truly love, some that I have reread (which is a rare occurrence) and I still struggle to remember minor details. Someone will ask me for a book recommendation, I'll rattle off a couple that I really enjoyed but when asked what is it about, or why would I like it - I honestly struggle to answer. Or they will read the book and expect to discuss it with me, and I just can't bring anything to the conversation

  8. One of my all time favorite ladies I ever worked with always said, "learning floats on a sea of talk." I think that is so true and applies when it comes to remembering what we read. The books I've discussed with someone else have real sticking power. The books I read and just move on from, those kind of fade together.

  9. I definitely forget details of most of the books I read. Part of the reason I love to re-read my favorites, to remind myself why I loved them, and hopefully internalize the details of the book a little better.

  10. I love this post. I have a terrible memory for books (actually, for everything) but I never forget the emotional response I have to a book. I don't mind if I forget things really because it means, if I ever decide to re-read, it'll be like having a new experience. Still, it would be nice to remember what my favourite book is...

  11. I can totally relate! I can usually remember the general idea of the book and whether I liked it or didn't like it, but I start forgetting facts shortly after reading it. My husband is the type that remembers EVERYTHING and it makes me think that I am the abnormal one, but it's nice to know that I'm in good company and maybe he is actually the abnormal one. ;)