Remembering What We Read

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Memory is the treasure house of our lives, unless it is a gallery of our nightmares. And sometimes it is both. The memories we carry of our lives are a substantial part of our sense of self. A visit after many years to a conference center where we worked for over twenty years for parts of every summer evoked a raft of memories as we thought about conversations in a particular cabin, speakers in the meeting house, and so many special moments with our son. Perhaps one of the best part of the week was recalling these parts of our lives, of re-membering them in the sense of infusing them with life once more. What is so difficult about memory loss is our loss of parts of our lives, whether the immediate past, or more distant parts.

For those of us who are readers, we while away hours in our books. Yet it is funny how often it is hard to remember what we have read last week or month. The Atlantic re-ran an article titled “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read,” that captured the oddities of our forgetfulness and our memories when it comes to reading. Sometimes we remember where we bought the book or where we were when we read it or the book group we discussed it with, but precious little of what is in it.

Some of it is the reality of our lives. The article noted that we may “read” 100,000 words a day, although how much attention we give them all is a question. Much never makes it out of our short term memories. Perhaps we read too much. There are times when I’d love to set aside reading multiple books for reviews, and so much else on my news feeds, and just savor a good book, perhaps a significant book, perhaps an old friend I read many years ago, the memory of which I’d like to renew. And perhaps, the time will come when I shall.

Some of us use writing to crystallize our thoughts about our reading. This is how this blog began–originally as Goodreads posts whose main purpose was just to remember what I’d read. Others keep notebooks, jotting down significant ideas, or just keeping a list of what they’ve read. And some will debate you about whether writing undermines memory. At least for me, it allows me to capture what I want to take away from a book.

Still, this has its limits. The other day, someone commented on a review of Under Western Eyes from 2014. I barely remembered reading the book in this case and did not remember enough to reply to what was an interesting comment. It makes me wonder why I remember some books and not others. I think it has to do with the fact that there are some, that because they engaged or provoked me, I keep revisiting and sometimes re-reading. For some it is the emotional context, such as The Long Winter by Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder that we read aloud as a family during a particularly cold winter in the 1990’s.

I think it makes a difference of whether the book is in sight. Often seeing the book, even the title on the spine, reminds me of what I read. My treadmill is in front of one of my shelves, and I often recall the content of books as I wrack up the steps. I squirrelled Under Western Eyes away somewhere and probably haven’t seen the book since I read it.

Some reader friends don’t think it matters so much. It is the enjoyment of the moment. And with some books, more may not be worth it. They were just a pleasant diversion. Yet even the best of these sort are memorable. I think of Thurber’s “The Night the Bed Fell.” His stories were both a delight and memorable.

Sometimes, it is the sheer intensity of the book that makes it memorable. Every one of Kristen Hannah’s books have been like that, and more than one has had me lying awake at night, none more than The Nightingale. While not as intense, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See stayed with me when I closed the covers.

Still, I wish I were C.S. Lewis when it came to memory. It seems that he remembered just about everything he read, down to being able to tell you on what page you might find a particular quote or statement. But that is not my gift and won’t be.

What can I say about remembering more of what we read? At this juncture in life, the question for me seems to be as I read a book, what is worth remembering? I find myself praying that I might be attentive to what matters out of all the information, all the words, that I will inevitably forget. What is worth pondering, considering, even taking to heart? It might be a single sentence out of a book. Is it worth it? If it is a nugget of intellectual gold, absolutely! I will ponder it until it is added to my treasure house of memory.

5 thoughts on “Remembering What We Read

  1. With you completely Bob. I used to make extensive notes in a data base on everything I read. I still rate everything I read and keep a record but now only record what I thought was exceptional.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I found that writing notes on the blank page(s) at the end of the book while I was reading it and then converting the notes into Amazon/Goodreads book reviews was a great help in remembering what I read and being able to access my “notes” later.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this, Bob. This passage especially struck me:

    “Still, I wish I were C.S. Lewis when it came to memory. It seems that he remembered just about everything he read, down to being able to tell you on what page you might find a particular quote or statement. But that is not my gift and won’t be.”

    Yes, this reminds me that some of my friends can easily recall details from books. I also like details, and facts, but I can’t always retrieve them easily, if they are even stored locally. 😉 Come to think of it, I consider it a gift to remember topics I’ve read about. Goodreads is also helpful. 🙂

    Do you think that C.S. Lewis and his contemporaries from pre-Internet generations had more aptitude for memory of the written word? I’m thinking that since they relied on it more, it is likely.

    Storage and recall is what I consider one of the advantages of eBooks. My Kindle highlights and notes are saved, even from library books I have checked out. When I read a book for review I can browse through my highlights and/or notes.

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    • I do think the number of streams of information make remembering harder. From what I can tell, Lewis had a special gift, but also focused attention on a certain “canon” of books, admittedly large, with which he became intimately acquainted. Now, we resort to searches to do the same thing for us, but might there be something lost in this? I agree. I do think memory for the written word may be cultivated to a certain degree, but this involves attention and contemplation, something I believe may be rare and worth recovering. I think the “slow reading” movement may be one promising direction. Hey, thanks for writing such a thought-provoking response!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are very welcome! Speaking of “long reading”, I have copy of Nicholas G. Carr
        “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” in my office. My wife picked up the book at a conference and had it signed by the author. It’s personalized “Go deep!”. 🙂 I found it an interesting read, but I felt that some of Carr’s investigation was too narrow in scope. For example, he concentrated on reading on traditional desktop and laptop type computers. I was left wondering how about the use of more dedicated devices – for reading or listening to audiobooks, podcasts, etc.? Would reading (or listening?) on these devices not be considered “deep reading” to Carr?


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