Forgetting Books We’ve Read

“If we think of a library as a city and a book as an individual house in that city, each sentence becomes one tiny component of that house. Some are mostly functional – the load-bearing wall, the grout between the bathroom tiles – while others are the details we remember and take away, perhaps recalling their texture and colour when we assemble our own verbal dwelling-place.”  –Jenny Davidson

Who I am is constructed, in part, out of books I’ve read. When I read, especially if I love what I’m reading, I feel as if the book has entered my very bone marrow. But I read, on average, four or five books a week. Often more. Where has my mind put decades of books?   

Julie Beck’s article in The Atlantic offers an answer. It’s titled, “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read.” She writes, “people often shove more into their brains than they can possibly hold.” She cites a study from 2009 showing the average American encounters 100,000 words a day. Our memories simply cannot keep all this information readily available. I say pish posh, the memories we take in from what we read has to do with its relevance. We hang on to the information that most impacts us, intrigues us, or that we put to use.  

Beck also points out we’re better able to recall the context in which we read a book, so we remember reading a green-jacketed novel based in Sierra Leone while on vacation, but are likely to recall the book’s contents. To me that’s one of memory’s gifts. I’ll never forget reading The Color Purple while nursing my firstborn or reading The World According To Garp while on the couch recovering from knee surgery or becoming so immersed in by Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House while at an airport departure gate that I missed my flight.

Okay, maybe I feel threatened by the idea that I’ve wasted literal years of my life reading books that simply float beyond memory into a void. But there’s plenty of evidence that books change us, whether we remember them well or not at all.

  • A study at Emory University found reading can have long-term effects on our biology. Study participants read only part of a novel, yet still showed significant increases in connectivity between the left and right brain regions. This effect lasted for several days. Imagine the effect of reading regularly!   

  • Stanford’s Natalie Phillips found an overall increase in blood flow during close reading. She writes in Stanford News, “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Blood flow also increases during pleasure reading, but in different brain areas. Phillips suggested that each style of reading can create distinct patterns in the brain that are “far more complex than just work and play.” 

  • Regular readers, according to various studies, are much more likely to volunteer, donate to charity, and vote than non-readers.

  • Research demonstrates that people who find themselves most transported by fiction and who express the most empathy for the book’s characters are more likely to express empathy in real life. 

  • Fiction readers score higher on theory of mind, which is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. It’s likely to stem from the way we engage with stories. As researcher Keith Oatley writes, ”These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator.” 

Yes, we “forget” books we’ve read in the sense that we can’t easily recall them, or maybe recall but can’t remember much of the plot. In school-like terms, we can’t pass the test. I can’t help thinking, however, that this goes much deeper than surface recall.

Tiny babies take in language all around them. They learn, on their own timetables, more and more words. (Which adults around them can’t help but “test” with “What does an owl say?” and react in delight when the child hoots.)
They also learn what reactions words elicit (Making the sounds for “Want milk” turns, magically, into actual milk.) And they learn much more – how words convey and transform emotion, how words affect people differently, how words on
a flat page can hold a world-stretching story, how words can soothe and harm and instigate and become vehicles for imagination. Thankfully babies acquire language without testing them on where they first learned a word or what picture book taught them about the sounds made by owls.

I believe we take books in much the same way. They sink in deep and stay there whether we can dredge them back up to the surface of recall or not. I can remember some books reasonably well without Google’s help, but those are a fraction of the books that expanded my perspective, deepened my spiritual outlook, and gave me glimpses of lives well beyond my own. I may not remember the titles I’ve loved but at the same time I know they changed me. Still, I’ll let Billy Collins have the last word. 

FORGETFULNESS   by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted   
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Forgetting Books We’ve Read

  1. Oh, I love this essay! All the books I’ve read and forgotten have left imprints here and there, mixing with newly acquired images and ideas until there’s this wonderful stew of impressions that slither into my own writing or conversation. Who know where it all goes? But, for sure, the practice of reading keeps us ready to receive another story and another and another.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Isn’t it true? But even if I can’t recall whole books, my entire thinking is formed by those phrases, evocations, characters and concepts that have stayed with me over decades – bright, beloved shadows that rise from time to time from the depths of Lethe and send me running to one bookcase or another to renew my acquaintance with an old, old friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Billy Collins poem is one of my favorites. It all rings so true as I age and my memory becomes more and more like Swiss cheese. Especially annoying are the memory lapses regarding books. I remember I loved that book! But I can’t tell you the title or the author, or sometimes even what it was about. But loving it is, I suppose, good enough. I have come up with a positive thought about this book forgetting syndrome: if ever I would be stranded with only one book, it would be tolerable since by the time I reached the end I’d have forgotten what happened at the beginning….

    Liked by 1 person

    • My luck, I’d be stranded with the set of encyclopedias my parents bought. They suggested many times that we sit down and read them, start to finish, but the lure of fresh library books was always too great.

      Like

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