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Our Reading Lives

A Simple Solution for Bookish Forgetfulness

Kristen Kwisnek

Staff Writer

Kristen Kwisnek is a public librarian based near Baltimore, Md. who specializes in children’s literature and services. When she’s not reading, writing, or librarian-ing, Kristen can be found with her amazing husband eating something delicious, watching ‘90s music videos, and dreaming of one day having a dog that she’ll pretend is Sirius Black.

I’m a school librarian and, no surprise, I spend a lot of my time reading. I read for pleasure, I read for work, I read for book club, I read to stay informed. The thing is, I often have trouble remembering what I’ve read.

I had brain surgery a couple years ago, and while I’m incredibly lucky to be alive and fully functional, my ability to retain what I read has noticeably diminished. I read an Agatha Christie mystery earlier this year and realized a month later that I had no idea “whodunnit.” With this book and others I’ve read in the past two years, I remember how the book made me feel, but twists, turns, and reveals in the plot go bye-bye.

I should be thrilled that I am still able to read (and deep down, I am), but it’s hard not to feel frustrated. What’s the point of all this reading if I can’t remember the most important parts?

Reading an article like The Curse of Reading and Forgetting is somewhat reassuring. I’m not the only one who is reading and forgetting, but that doesn’t change the fact that I need a way to retain a book’s key plot points. If a book I’ve read comes up in conversation with friends, I want to be able to discuss it fully. When I provide readers advisory to a student, I want to remember a book well enough to recommend without worrying it has inappropriate content.

Sitting around feeling sorry for myself isn’t my style, so this summer, I took action. I brainstormed ways to address my literary forgetfulness and decided on writing what I call my “Spoilers Notebook.” It’s incredibly simple. For each book I read, I write the names of the key players, the setting(s), and then, most importantly, a summary including every spoiler in the story.

Writing mini book reports like this initially felt juvenile, plus it was tedious. Now that I’ve been at it for a few months, however, I’m reaping the benefits. I’ve found that the act of summarizing improves my overall ability to recall details from a given story. But when I still can’t remember a major plot twist, reading over my spoilers provides relief from the anxiety that comes with my forgetfulness. It makes those voices in my head that call me dumb for my memory lapses go away in the time it takes to read the few spoiler-filled sentences I’ve written.

I haven’t been writing in my notebook for very long, so I don’t have too many entries and it isn’t difficult to find the spoiler I need. Looking ahead to when I have more books logged, I realize it may be hard to search for a specific book since the entries of the notebook are in “date read” order. If I can’t remember the major plot points of a book, it’s not likely I’ll remember exactly when I read it!

The physical act of writing the spoilers helps me remember the books I’ve read, so I will continue hand-writing my entries, but I will also go digital. My plan is to type out the entries in a Google Doc and keep them in a Spoilers folder in Google Drive. Having the spoilers in the cloud will make them easily searchable and accessible anywhere I go. Plus, typing the entries will further reinforce the plots and spoilers of the books I’ve read, which will help fight my bookish forgetfulness.

Admittedly, I don’t include every book I read and that’s not going to change. There are definitely some books I want to forget! But it’s the power to choose what goes in my notebook that is significant. Knowing I can fall back on these spoilers to sharpen my blurry memory gives me a sense of control that was missing in my reading life post-surgery. So I will continue this seemingly childish and tiresome practice, and will do so cheerfully. My personal readerly mantra now is Sanity through Spoilers!