Forgotten Tomes

An interesting article in the New York Times, on whether or not people can recall having read a book.

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.

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.

So we in the forgetful majority must, I think, confront the following question: Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?

It’s an interesting notion; I know on occasion I suffer from this, depending how long ago I read the book in question, of course. And on the other hand, it’s cool returning to a novel and reading the same prose with different reading experiences under your belt, or even discovering new sensations within the text.

For those bloggers and reviewers who plough through dozens of titles: can you actually recall every book you read, or does the effort of having to cover a lot of work mean you forget most of them? I know some people have the gift of speed-reading, so this perhaps doesn’t apply here. I often wonder just how much the desire to tick-off a list of must-read titles influences the ability to absorb the contents of a novel – perhaps even the enjoyment of that novel – let alone the affecting the ability to recall the work. Though maybe the act of writing reviews (perhaps even those poor reviews that barely go beyond a plot summary) helps firm the events of a book in your mind.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. I’m a very fast reader (my creepy mutant power – that, and being able to make Kraft Macaroni & Cheese really tasty). And I generally remember everything I read. I do notice (being human) that my perception of a book, and my response to it, changes over time. Even within a few days – a bit character that I “ignored” whilst reading the book suddenly stands out in my mind, or if, while reading, I was upset by the horrendous grammar, a week later, I can only remember the fantastic descriptions.

    It has taken a lot of time (and 300 reviews) to figure out how to balance the two in critiquing the book. The first impression is really important (as it is noisiest), but, arguably, it is less crucial than what stays with you for the rest of your life (or, whatever).

    (I’d also point out that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with just recalling ‘atmosphere & a stray image or two’ – compared to memories of everything else in life, that’s not that bad….)

  2. Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?

    A frankly mad question – since when is the goal of reading to remember it all later? I can remember few specifics of what I read, why should I though? As the professor quoted in that article says:

    There is a difference between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory. The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it… You are the sum of it all.

  3. Oh, and as for “ploughing through dozens of titles”, four dozen a year is less than one a week which I don’t really consider ploughing. I’m not sure the number of books you read makes any difference, it just depends how good your memory.

    As for reviewing helping to “firm the events of a book in your mind”, not for me but then I’ve firmed the events on the page which is even better. One of the main reasons I took up reviewing – beyond the fact most online SF reviews were shit – was to have a record of my thoughts.

  4. What Martin said.

    (I was actually going to quote that very same quote but he beat me to it.)

  5. Jared – a very fine point about memories and the rest of life.

    Martin – I’m sure many reviewers read at a very quick pace to keep up with what publishers send them. Lord knows the complaints often circulate on twitter. Blogs close all the time since life gets in the way; which implied for time before that, the books were getting in the way. All innuendo, of course.

    As for reading for remembering – an interesting point. I’m reading a lot of non-fiction at the moment, and am trying to remember a lot of that since it’s so valuable. With fiction, my point here was to do with issues of pace and what that meant for the ability to absorb information/prose/subtitles.

    The existence of Dan Brown’s career suggests that this isn’t essential for the majority of readers; but would you say that a book merely being a quick, forgettable read is always a good thing? Again, I point to the existence of Dan Brown’s career and suggest – no, not always…

  6. Are all books memorable though? I read a LOT, a read between 3-4 books a week, not because I MUST, but because I want to. Most of my free time is spent reading and I am fine with that. There are books that I just want to forget, to be honest.

    What Martin said about reviewing as a way of keeping a record of what I read is very true.

    And Mark, funny that you mention non-fiction and trying to remember because it is valuable. Reminds me of Uni where I used to keep written pointers of everything I read so that I knew where to go back to in case I needed. It was recommended by the professors and it helped me immensely when it was time to write my thesis.

  7. Blogs close all the time since life gets in the way; which implied for time before that, the books were getting in the way.

    It is possible people are reading too much; I’ve never understood the need bloggers feel to keep up on their ARCs but I accept it exists. However, I think this is more an issue of the writing rather than the reading. Too many bloggers seem to feel the urge to review (or at least write about) everything they read. This is extremely demanding and I’m not at all surprised that they burnout.

    but would you say that a book merely being a quick, forgettable read is always a good thing?

    Well, no. But then we are returning to the issue raised by Professor Wolf. Books such as Catch-22 and One Hundred Years Of Solitude have had a profound effect on me both as a reader and as a human but I can remember hardly any of the specifics of their plots. Similarly I may no longer be able to quote chapter and verse on Marx and Rawls but they have deeply informed my world view. I’ve read and re-read these works and sometimes slowly picked them apart over months so I don’t think it is a simply a question of the pace of consumption. The reader can forget but the book is not forgettable.

  8. Coming at it from a fiction standpoint, though, you have to ask what you want to remember – the content of the book, or the story you created in your mind as a result of reading it.

    There are so many gaps in novels that the reader fills in for themselves from their own experience. The story is created anew each time it’s read. That’s what gave rise to the sense of atmosphere that Prof. Wolf was talking about, and maybe his memories show that that’s what made the most impression on him at the time.

  9. I have a terrible memory for things that I read, unless I read it many times. As soon as I start re-reading a book I’ve already read, it tends to all come flooding back and I enjoy the familiarity of a well-loved book.

    I read a ton of books for reviewing, but I tend to remember the general themes, story, characters, and whether or not it was well written. This makes recommending them easier, but not talking about them after a friend has read one (most recently: Scott Lynch’s “Lies of Locke Lamora”, which I LOVED, but now can hardly remember salient details).

    It bothers me, sure, as my two best friends can recall snatches of text and excellent lines of dialogue (they both are postgraduate English literature students…). But, it means that I can re-read books as often as I like, and always get something new from them. It’s almost as if I have a photographic memory but without any film… If I did remember everything about a book, I imagine I would only re-read it if the prose was exceptional and a real pleasure to read.

    I think the only difference would be for ‘firsts’: first sci-fi book, first fantasy, first thriller by a certain author – I tend to remember more of those, but still not all of them.

  10. Hell, I forget what’s happening in the books I’m reading! I do a little synopsis in my mind as I settle in to make sure I’m up to speed. I tend to read 4-5 at a time, which may contribute to my forgetfulness.

    The act of reviewing definitely forces you to confront your feelings on a book, something you may not reflect on when reading for pleasure.

    Trying to learn to speed read was a horrifying experience for me. Most of what is enjoyable about reading to me is getting the sense of language, voice and imagery. Speed reading is about bypassing your speech centers and consuming large chunks of words directly with your eyes and brain. Most training involves speaking repetitive sounds(ABC’s, counting to 100) while reading to disassociate the speech and comprehension centers. Not something I’d consider a gift. It could be potentially devastating to a writer’s sensibilities.

  11. This is why I absolutely refuse to turn my blog into any sort of book blog. I see people blowing through a ton of new releases, and I can’t help but thinking: will they actually remember and appreciate said titles?

    I ran a music blog, and I found much of the same thing. If I go through the archives and go to my ‘Best of the Month’ from a couple of years ago, I will probably only easily recall a couple of songs – there’s only a handful that truly resonated with me.

    I think the problem in this little community of bloggers is that there’s an intense focus on a) blog hits, and b) putting through as much content as possible to achieve said hits. Not really what I associate with reading.

    I’ll review books as I get to them, but I don’t hurry through to try and see how many I can read, because I’ve done that, and I can’t remember a lot from them.

    Looking at the books on my shelf, I generally can remember what they’re about – some I’ve read multiple times (because if I do go through it too quickly, I’ll forget things), others I’ve remembered a lot. Plus, I still have the book, so if I need to recall something from it, I’ve got it handy. (Very helpful when researching!)

  12. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Ana – it was actually a little tough going back into non-fiction after reading so much fiction, purely because the reading had to be a lot more focussed. I was out of practice.

    Martin – there’s something interesting coming out here that suggests a book can only ever be what the reader experiences. Is there more to literature than that? Getting into lit crit territory here, I feel.

    Tom – indeed, continuing on this same theme, the “memories” angle indicates that novels are only what readers remember. I wonder if that means novels continue to be “read” after the act?

    Stefan – that was my big fear until writing this post. I was worried I was the only one who couldn’t recall all of a novel: people I know seem to share that annoying ability to recall complex plots.

    T.N. Tobias – ha! Yeah, I know what you mean. Interesting thoughts on speed reading, too. For me, I’d never even want to learn.

    Andrew – and a wise choice indeed. The pressure (real or perceived) to get through numerous books does seem to massively interfere with the reader-book relationship. All the more worrying given many blogs operate in this way. Perhaps this could be an advantage of having a review team, such as for a print magazine?

  13. Most blogs are essentially one-man/woman magazines in and of themselves, or at least a section in a magazine. It’s mixed, but I think that the general view of the blogosphere (from my seat, anyway) is that while there’s an insistence that they’re reading for fun, there’s a drive to read as much as possible to keep people coming back. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you’re straightforward about what your motives are, I guess.

    My personal site is something that I’ve written for for a long time, and all two of my regular readers will note that I’ve posted up book reviews, but also things on military history, current politics, technology and geek stuff in general. I have a lot of interests, and I like to talk about a lot of things.

    I also ran a music blog (carryyouaway.wordpress.com) which I sporatically update, but honestly? I found that it sucked all the passion out of listening to music, and if I come across something that really moves me, I’ll just post it up to my regular site anyway. I love reading, and I love listening to music, and writing to a strict schedule with a lot of material was counterproductive to what I intended in the first place. This is all without touching the drama that tends to surface.

  14. Do I remember? Yes and no. I can perhaps remember books I’ve read, but I often couldn’t tell you when I read them. I can’t remember which short stories I’ve read in anthologies/collections, either.

    I read embarrassingly slow (Although I’ve done ~120 pages of a Terry Pratchett book since last night, I think. Or was it the night before?), so the number of books I get through a year can be small compared to many others.

    I keep a reading list, though. It’s kinda cool 🙂

  15. I’m currently reading ‘focus’ by Leo Babauta (http://focusmanifesto.com/)and one thing he comments on is the age of distraction. And he’s right. We do get distracted a lot. So I guess some of us read to get away from being ‘wired’, which is also why I’ve taken up baking and going to try cooking more.

    What’s this got to with reading? When I was 15/6 just about pre-internet for me (that’s 1995) I used to be able to recall everything I’d written and read. I used to be able to rewrite things without having to look at the what I’d written before. I just knew it.

    Now after doing jobs that require a lot of information to be processed and having developed an addiction to information I can’t remember much – actually I can remember a lot but not a lot of detail. It’s more labelled and filed so I can find it again.

    If pushed I can delve deep and probably remember a particular scene or moment in a book but I can’t guarantee it. Though saying that a lot of moments from books that have stuck with me. And have really shaped my understanding.

    Right, lets look at the quality over quantity thing. I guess it comes down to how much time you spend on a book and what you’re like as a reader. I’m a page a minute boy – though I think my Kindle speed is a little faster than that. I read slowly taking in every line. So the only limited on the books I read is how much time I spend reading a week.

    But what I do get out of reviewing, which is a good and a bad thing, is having to pass judgement on what I read, sometimes as I read. And that makes me read closer and take in what a writer is to say more than if I just read without the view to reviewing it. I tend to fit back and enjoy them a little more.

    Actually what the problem with reading and reviewing almost everything you read is that you can’t just enjoy the experience and not have your judging head on.

  16. I read a lot – finish 200+ books a year and open probably 2000+ to find those 200+ I want to read since life is too short to spend on meh books – and I tend to remember every book I read at least as an impression; for most books I could write a review without having the book except for spell checking names and other details like that – eg do chapters have mottos, are they named or numbered – these little things happen to contribute a lot imho to the structure of a novel and I tend to mention them.

    For many books I tend to write reviews months after I read them and occasionally even years (Cloud Atlas is one recent review and my last read of it was 3 years ago easily)and I find that it offers a much better perspective on the book, than a review after reading it – these I do rarely actually, I usually take at least a week or two and reading several other books between reading and reviewing a specific book.

  17. I recall details of the books that I couldn’t put down, but books that I just liked or enjoyed often fall out of my memory fairly quickly. I remember snippets, such as the basic plot, the occasional character quirk, and so on, but rarely major details.

    Then there are all the books that I’ve done a fine job of deleting from my memory. Awful books don’t deserve to be remembered…

  18. Gav – interesting you say how distracting the internet has been. I wonder how much the effects have been on my own reading. But yes, that’s one of the reasons I don’t think I could review – because it means I couldn’t relax and enjoy the process as much.

    Liviu – I will always remain envious of your ability to read so many novels AND take in the information. It really is incredible! But also, an interesting point about letting a novel mature in one’s mind.

    SMD – this is true about awful books. So long as no one says it about mine. 🙂