Our Reading Lives

A Reread I Didn’t Know Was a Reread: On Reading Amnesia

Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at babylibrarians.com. Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

Reading amnesia is apparently not that uncommon. You read a book, but a little while later, you’d be hard pressed to remember the more minor details from that book. Sometimes maybe even the major details. I find that I often forget details, and sometimes even character names, but what stays with me is how that book made me feel. I will generally remember if I loved it, hated it, whether I needed time to recover from it, whether I read it in one sitting or whether it was a slow slog.

Sometimes this is useful. For one of my favourite genres, crime fiction, it means I can revisit a book I know I once enjoyed but have since forgotten how the mystery was solved or who the bad guy was, and I can read it anew.

There is something that’s more embarrassing to admit, though: I sometimes read books that I have no memory of ever having read, but my reading logs show that I have. I’m back at my parents’ place in Sydney for a few weeks, and one day as I was looking at my bookshelves, I noticed a book. It was a chick lit title, one I remembered buying, but didn’t remember reading.

I thought I bought it but didn’t read it and forgot to take it with me when I moved to the States. The synopsis revealed a book that was right up my alley, and it confused me that it was in Sydney and that I hadn’t read it. So I started reading it.

In the first chapter, there was one scene that struck me as familiar. So I thought maybe I’d started reading it but didn’t finish it. I kept reading. About halfway in, there was another scene that was a little bit familiar, but everything else seemed new, so I thought nothing of it. Two thirds of the way in, there was a scene I was *sure* I’d read before. I checked the reading logs, and there it was—book read in October 2015.

I kept reading, though, because I still couldn’t remember how it ended. This is unusual, because it’s a genre that is fairly predictable and one that I love, and normally I can tell fairly early on how the Happily Ever After will go. But right now, I’m only a couple of chapters from the end, and still have no clue. And I have read this book before! I have proof!

So there’s reading amnesia where you might forget minor details, or character names, or the resolution of a mystery. But it turns out there’s a whole new level of reading amnesia: where you completely forget ever having read the book.

This led me to the question: what is the point of reading? Is it like a rollercoaster, where you do it for the experience at the time and in the moment? It’s not about what happens afterwards, but about the few minutes (or hours, in the case of reading) spent actually on the ride, and the thrills from that? Or is reading more than that, and should be about what you take away and remember of the experience? Should I be retaining what I read? If I don’t, why am I even bothering?

Do you remember what you read? Is this the same for fiction and non-fiction? Do you retain every detail, or just the feeling that you were left with when you finished? And have you ever read a book thinking you had never read it and it took more than two thirds of the reread and checking a reading log to realise that actually, you had read the book before…? (Please tell me I’m not the only one.)