Why read books if we can’t remember them?

I know I’m not alone in reading a murder mystery, only to realize—perhaps a third of the way or half through—that I’ve read it before. Having reacquainted myself with the plot, I can usually remember who dunnit! Except for their resemblance to one another, murder mysteries may be the most easily recalled of books. I’ve forgotten so many others. I look around my library and I’m embarrassed that I’ve read so much more than I even begin to remember. Now, I realize, happily, that I’m not alone.

James Collins in the September 19, 2010 issue of The New York Times Book Review writes

I have just realized something terrible about myself: I don’t remember the books I read…. Nor do I think I am the only one with this problem. Certainly, there are those who can read a book once and retain everything that was in it, but anecdotal evidence suggests that is not the case with most people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents.

He then asks the obvious but troubling question: Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?

Collins consults an expert and examines his own experience of reading, which is a pleasurable one. Which also turns out to be the first answer to the question: reading is pleasurable. A second answer proposes that reading is like any other experience—we are changed by it and on some level it stays with us. Collins objects: he doesn’t read for some general benefit to his character and intelligence; he reads for information. In conclusion, he briefly examines some of the techniques that are supposed to help us remember what we read.  It doesn’t sound as if he’s taken to any of them.

Oddly, even though Collins is a writer of novels, he doesn’t seem to worry that most of his readers will be just as forgetful of his own books.

Nor does he consult the writer’s experience of remembering. When I write—and I’ve heard enough interviews with others to know I’m not alone—I seldom have a precise memory of any past event. I have a plethora of memories, most of them vague, and stirring them up somehow elicits whole chapters that I didn’t expect. The surprise that’s the text is one of the joys of writing.

If that kind of remembering happens with past experience, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t happen with books. Some of what we read will be remembered in detail, but most of it will come back when we least expect it, and very probably in forms we don’t recognize.

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