Why Read What We Can’t Remember?

This is a guest post from James Wallace Harris. James writes about science fiction at SF Signal, and about pretty much everything else at his blog AuxiliaryMemory. Jim is fascinated by the life cycle of books, from manuscript to forgotten classic. For years he has maintain a website devoted to The Classics of Science Fiction. Follow him on Twitter @JimHarris28.


I’ve read thousands of books in my lifetime, so you’d think I’d be fantastic at trivia, know the Jeopardy questions, always win arguments, and bore the patience out of my friends. I’m terrible with trivia, mediocre at Jeopardy, vague in arguments, and spend most of my conversational time listening. For some reason, all that book knowledge just doesn’t stick with me.

So why read what we can’t remember?

I wish I could hang onto ten insights from every book I’ve read. I’m a bookworm, and estimate I’ve read 2,500 books since 1962, with about a thousand being nonfiction and the rest fiction. If I had my wish, I’d be able to recite 25,000 bits of wisdom from those pages. I can’t. I can’t even recall half their titles, nor remember anything at all about most of those books.

Folks of my generation joke about memory loss. We comfort each other by telling ourselves everyone has the same problem, so why worry. Not only is memory loss common, science now knows memories have always been unreliable. Even more embarrassing, we embrace false memories, ones we’ll swear are true even when confronted with external evidence.

I love nonfiction books, documentaries, and the news. I’m like the little robot in that old movie, Short Circuit – more input, more input. However, if you’d asked me to list all the news stories I remember from last year, I would just jot down: forest fires, floods, terrorism, forest fires, mass shooting, forest fires, and Donald Trump. Where are the details?

Last week I read Dark Money by Jane Mayer, a tremendous feat of journalism! Sadly, I’ve already forgotten most of Mayer’s well documented cases against legalized corruption. That’s truly annoying. I spent days consuming Mayer’s book, learning how the ultra-rich game the system. Whenever I get into political arguments, I’d love to be able to recall the unscrupulous techniques cited by Mayer. Especially if anyone brings up the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United. When I try to get my friends to read Dark Money, all I can remember is, “Libertarians now scare me more than communism terrified the John Birchers.” 380 pages of facts distilled to one emotion.

Lately, I’ve become obsessed with memory. While reading I take in vast quantities of data, and when I stop, 99.9% of that information disappears. That knowledge is only in my mind while I work through each paragraph and concept. The more time passes, the more I forget. For many books, I forget even reading the book. For the better books, I remember hazy generalities and impressions. Of course, our personal memories are just as hazy and impressionistic. I’d be hard pressed to write an autobiography without countless interviews, detective work, research, and external documentation. I wouldn’t trust one damn memory I have.

This painful limitation of recall extends to novels too. I just listened to Hyperion by Dan Simmons for a book club. Hyperion is an epic science fiction novel that parallels the structure of The Canterbury Tales. I’ve now read this novel three times, so you’d think I’d have all the major plot points memorized. Yet, in the club discussion, I’m regularly flummoxed by simple questions. I constantly have to refer to the book. And when I do, I’m often amazed by rediscovering details that I can’t believe I’ve ever forgotten.

Wouldn’t it be great if we actually remembered exactly what we read? Which brings up the book I’m currently reading, Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Don’t be misled by the title, because the book is about memory and not religion. There were 40-65 years between when Jesus died and when the four Gospels were written. This book is about how historic events might have been remembered and passed down orally. Ehrman explores the limits of memory in a preliterate culture. I’d be in big trouble if I had to write the Gospel According to Jane Mayer fifty years from now.

Much of my current memory anxiety comes from growing older, even though I remember being young struggling to recall what I read for tests in school. I’m often surprised by what memories do bubble to the surface. Recalling one tiny fact will trigger another. For example, it just popped into my head that Mayer described how the rich used nonprofit organizations to promote their political agendas. Dredging up that one detail reminds me of additional facts from Mayer’s narrative, but hooking one fact from another takes a lot of time, and unless I can retrieve that first seed fact, I won’t get far.

Why do I want to remember these facts? Test taking is no longer part of my life. Mayer spent years writing her book, digesting libraries of research, allowing me to consume her wisdom in hours. While reading, I felt I understood the subject in fantastic detail. Even if I don’t get to keep those thousands of facts, the experience was well worth my time. Yet, I lament what I’ve forgotten.

To retain more of Mayer’s carefully constructed evidence would require taking notes, underlining, outlining, mind-mapping, designing PowerPoint presentations, murmuring comments to my iPhone’s voice recorder, and any other technique good students use to pass tests. Writing a detailed book review would help. So would teaching a course on the book. Course prep is a great memorization technique. However, given enough time, most of that hard learned knowledge would fade. Ultimately, we remember just whiffs of vagueness. That depresses me.

Ehrman references several books on memory research that were devastating to my soul. He carefully builds a solid case that our memories are unreliable, even proving we embrace false memories. One book, The Mind of a Mnemonist by Alexander Luria, is a psychological study of a man who could remember everything—something I’ve always wanted. At least I thought I did. It turns out perfect recall can be tragic.

Ehrman cites case after case, convincing me to never trust my memories again. The most revealing research was by Ulric Neisser. Professor Neisser gave 106 of his students a questionnaire the day after the Challenger shuttle explosion, asking where they were when it happened, how they learned about the event, from who, and who did they tell. He then tracked down many of those students two years later and gave them the same questionnaire. Twenty-five percent had entirely different memories on all questions. Most had different answers for some questions. And the kick in the stomach? Even confronted with the evidence of their earlier statements, many students insisted their current memories were the real ones.

This tells me if I want to remember a book I need to take notes, write a review immediately after I finish, link internet resources to document my points, and publish it somewhere my future self can find. I call my blog Auxiliary Memory because I want external storage for my thoughts. And it is, although I’m frequently horrified to read what I’ve completely forgotten. Then there’s another problem. Why look something up you don’t remember to look up?

I could always reread the Dark Money when the need arises. Even though I prefer audiobooks and hardbacks, I’ve discovered that ebooks work better as artificial memories. The Kindle search feature is an excellent recall tool if I can recall key words. Plus, when writing, ebooks allow for easy cutting and pasting of quotes. And, since my ebooks are on my iPhone, they’re always with me. Not as great as an eidetic memory, but pretty damn good.

I’m sure reading changes my philosophical outlook even though I can’t prove it with details of what I’ve read. Knowledge appears to be more intuition than memorized facts. I’d like to assume the gist of these books become part of me, maybe coded without words into my soul. Is that what we call wisdom? I am positive Dark Money made me a different person.

Reading is about the moment—which is the ultimate answer to my title question. Reading is about being fully immersed in a book, and not memorization. If I want perfect recall, I can just reread. Yet, I still regret not being able to summarize the books I’ve read. But my failure to remember books is no worse that my failure to remember my past days.

Why read what we can’t remember? Reading is about the experience of reading. Like listening to music, or seeing a painting, or going on vacation. While reading Dark Money I existed in a model of reality that was a marvel of carefully crafted thoughts.

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