Our Reading Lives

Is it Worth Reading if I Forget Everything I Read?

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

My partner and I are both book nerds–we met working at a bookstore–but we don’t have a lot of overlap in our reading. He tends towards science fiction and horror, and I read YA, literary fiction, and queer lit of all genres. When we do both read the same book, though, it’s always an interesting experience for me. I tend to immerse myself in books, absorbing the general emotions I get from the story, or the big ideas that it grapples with. I am a character-driven reader, while my partner is more plot-based. He can point out plot holes I wouldn’t have noticed even on rereads. What’s more, though, he can actually remember the books he reads.

If I’m asked about a book I’m reading, I can give you a rundown of the pros and cons. I’ll tell you what I think is the most important aspect of the story, how it handles sensitive subjects, and what kind of reader would enjoy it. Ask me about that book in a month, though–sometimes even a week–and I will have no idea what you’re talking about. This isn’t limited to books: I forget the names of the main characters of movies or TV shows I’ve seen a half dozen times. Let’s be honest, I’ve forgotten the name of my boss of 5 years before. (And not for a minute, either. For at least an hour.)

This makes it tricky for us to discuss books we’ve both read, because unless it’s a current read, I will not remember what he’s referencing. I know my general impressions of a book, but I certainly won’t retain plot points. We once read House of Leaves for an impromptu bookseller book club. I finished it within a week. He finished it in a month. He had a completely fleshed out theory of the grand narrative of the story. Three weeks later, I could only recall the tactile impression of reading, of turning the book in circles to follow the spiralling lines. It hadn’t even occurred to me to decipher it on that level. Even as I write this post, I’m worrying that I’ve written something like this before and I just can’t remember…

I don’t mean to imply that my partner is a better reader than I am. We just approach books differently. I will argue about the philosophical underpinnings of a story, or how it reinforces or challenges existing stereotypes. We view stories through our own lenses, which makes it all the more interesting to trade those thoughts when we’ve read (or watched) the same story. What I do often think about after those conversations, though, is why I continue to prioritize reading when I don’t seem to absorb much of it. What’s the point of reading when you don’t remember any of it?

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the one hand, you have the Emerson approach: whether or not I remember a book has nothing to do with whether it’s affected me. The novels we read make us more empathetic. The stories we hear help us to build a greater understanding of the world and the people in it. The ideas that books communicate interact with everything else bouncing around in my mind. There’s no disentangling them, but they’re still there, shaping my thoughts and actions.

Of course, reading isn’t just about building our knowledge or even becoming more empathetic. I don’t feel the same struggle about not remembering TV shows, because I recognize that they’re for entertainment. There’s value in losing yourself in a book without the expectation that it is going to make you a better person. Besides, the human brain can only store so much information! I don’t need it to remember every plot point of every book I’ve ever read. If it means leaving room for other things, maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t.

There are so many excellent reasons to read, and most of them don’t require perfect recall of each book. With my swiss cheese memory, I’ve taken to heart that the brain is a great place to make creative connections and to come up with new ideas, but it’s a pretty poor place to store information. There are many things our brains can still do better than the average computer–so why do we prioritize them trying to do something a piece of paper can do better?

Even if I forget every word when I close a book, I will keep on opening them. For one thing, it makes rereads much more exciting! But more importantly, for me, it’s an exercise in letting go. My strength as a reader is not in accurate recollection of previous books–or even previous chapters. That might make epic fantasies and mysteries a tough go, but it doesn’t mean my reading has no value.

If you are not ready to let go, though, and want to improve your reading recall, you might be interested in A Simple Solution for Forgetting What You Read!