Reading and Forgetting.

Julie Beck at the Atlantic has a superficial but lively piece called “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read” that focuses on one of the things that interests me most — what and how we remember. It begins:

Pamela Paul’s memories of reading are less about words and more about the experience. “I almost always remember where I was and I remember the book itself. I remember the physical object,” says Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, who reads, it is fair to say, a lot of books. “I remember the edition; I remember the cover; I usually remember where I bought it, or who gave it to me. What I don’t remember—and it’s terrible—is everything else.”

For example, Paul told me she recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. “While I read that book, I knew not everything there was to know about Ben Franklin, but much of it, and I knew the general timeline of the American revolution,” she says. “Right now, two days later, I probably could not give you the timeline of the American revolution.”

Sadly familiar, right? Beck says:

The “forgetting curve,” as it’s called, is steepest during the first 24 hours after you learn something. Exactly how much you forget, percentage-wise, varies, but unless you review the material, much of it slips down the drain after the first day, with more to follow in the days after, leaving you with a fraction of what you took in.

Useful information, but nothing new, and I’ve long since learned to rehearse stuff to myself before I forget it. I’m a little dubious about the follow-up statement that “In the internet age, recall memory—the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind—has become less necessary,” but I grew up before the internet age, so what do I know? She quotes a study that showed that “those who binge-watched TV shows forgot the content of them much more quickly than people who watched one episode a week” and says:

The lesson from his binge-watching study is that if you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out. I used to get irritated in school when an English-class syllabus would have us read only three chapters a week, but there was a good reason for that. Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.

Sana says that often when we read, there’s a false “feeling of fluency.” The information is flowing in, we’re understanding it, it seems like it is smoothly collating itself into a binder to be slotted onto the shelves of our brains. “But it actually doesn’t stick unless you put effort into it and concentrate and engage in certain strategies that will help you remember.”

She quotes a New Yorker piece “The Curse of Reading and Forgetting,” in which Ian Crouch writes: “reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text?” I agree with Beck that that doesn’t seem like narcissism, but I disagree that “it’s true enough that if you consume culture in the hopes of building a mental library that can be referred to at any time, you’re likely to be disappointed.” It all depends on how you build your library. It may take rereading and conscious digesting (as Crouch says, “A simple remedy to forgetfulness is to read novels more than once”), but it doesn’t all have to vanish into the woodwork. Thanks, Bathrobe!

(For an earlier LH discussion of reading and memory, see this 2010 post.)


  1. So many words, but none about the fact that there’s nothing wrong with forgetting. Indeed, it is unavoidable. What’s the point of trying to remember certain things, if not that you thereby elect to forget the other things ?

    This is about selection. Take the case of reading books that perhaps you will want to remember later. While you are reading a book, you are not reading other books. Remembering the plot of a book (but, say, forgetting where you were when you read it) is a secondary selection, parasitic on a primary selection of reading that book instead of another one.

    Having written this comment, I have already forgotten why I thought it worthwhile to write it. Maybe I didn’t think about that, but just let the words pour out of my mind. I can’t remember. Oh well.

  2. Why we forget most of the books we read—because we forget most of everything. I mean, I don’t know about you fellas, but at least I do. I can’t recall what I ate for lunch last week, let alone a month or six or ten years. I can’t recall which T-shirts I had as a teenager, or when exactly was it that I decided to move up to button-down shirts. I can’t recall how many car trips I took my children to, or the meanings of the Tupi place-names that we played at deciphering; much less what kind of vacations my own parents used to take me to. Is it any wonder, then, that I know that I’ve read entire shelves of several school libraries (they were quite small) but I can barely call to mind which books they were? And even those which made an impression in my young mind (say, C.J. Koch’s The Doubleman) leave barely more than a sketch (there was… satanism? and a feel of ennui?), just like great-grandma left nothing more than sketches (floral dresses… free-range chicken… the word marionese, presumably portmanteauing on “Maria”, rather than standard maionese…) I see no reason to distinguish the fickleness and ephemerality of book-memory from normal everyday life-memory.

    And yet, when we re-read a book, how much stuff comes back! Some of it is actually just like reading a new book, but a lot is retroactively remembered, “oh yes, I remember this”. These are the madeleine-memories of books, and they are, like the madeleine-memories of life, beyond our control; they come at their wont, triggered by unknowable stimuli.

  3. Why we forget most of the books we read—because we forget most of everything.

    Sure, it’s just a special case, but it’s especially special to those of us who spend much of our lives reading books.

    And yet, when we re-read a book, how much stuff comes back! Some of it is actually just like reading a new book, but a lot is retroactively remembered, “oh yes, I remember this”.

    Yes, that’s a fascinating phenomenon that I’d like to know more about.

  4. Who was that ancient guy (worked in Alexandria’s library?) who forgot what books he had already written and wrote some of them again?

  5. Didymos Bibliolathas.

  6. MMcM never forgets.

  7. Nobody forgets. It’s physically impossible to actually forget anything.

    The stuff you read yesterday or forty years ago is still there in your head, it just gets more difficult to access your memory over the time.

    With some effort you’ll recover it.

  8. David Marjanović says

    That’s exaggerated; the ways in which information is kept in the memory, especially the short-term memory, are reversible. But, yes, a lot of “forgetting” is just loss of access.

  9. SFReader, that turns out not to be the case. I used to be like that. Now at age 59 when I forget something it is gone for good as far as recall is concerned.

  10. Yup, age is a great teacher.

  11. I find that I do a great deal of re-reading these days. Reading and then forgetting is what makes re-reading such a pleasure.

  12. The flip side of it are those very few books which make you want to read them again from the beginning as soon as you’ve gotten to the end, even though your memory of them is as fresh as can be.

  13. January First-of-May says

    I find that I do a great deal of re-reading these days. Reading and then forgetting is what makes re-reading such a pleasure.

    A family legend says that my reading retention rates have gone way down around age 8, because I was starting to run out of books at home, and my brain decided to compensate by allowing for easier re-reading.

    It’s certainly true that all the usual comprehension tests tend to seem absurdly hard to me – do normal people actually remember that kind of trivia?
    OTOH, my reading speed is so ridiculously fast that if it comes to that I can just re-read the passage again. I often say that my reading is the speed-reading equivalent of skimming; though it isn’t that easy for me to read slower.

  14. There’s a monthly magazine I’ve be buying since late 1995, when I was 9.

    Covers from, say, 1997 I still know by heart.
    Covers from the early and mid 2000s I still recognize.
    Covers from the last 10 years… it’s as though I’ve never seen them in my life.

  15. Yeah, I have near-eidetic memory of the covers of the sf magazines I bought in the early ’60s, when I was 11 to, say, 14. And seeing images of them now sends me into a nostalgic daze that nothing more recent can evoke.

  16. I remember virtually nothing of Crime and Punishment, only that it was a cathartic experience, and that I read it soon after I first arrived in Japan over 40 years ago. I still remember well reading it on a bus in Kyoto. The book somehow meshed (I don’t know how) with certain feelings of culture shock at the time. But all I remember of the story is what I read in Wikipedia some years ago.

  17. If I like a book enough to reread it, the second time can be almost like reading a new book. But on a third or later reading, I will remember enough that it does not ever really feel new.

  18. On the bus-trip into saga country
    Ivan Malinowski wrote a poem
    About the nuclear submarines offshore

    From an abandoned whaling station.
    I remember it as a frisson, but cannot
    Remember any words…

    (Seamus Heaney, “Squarings”, section xxiii, from Seeing Things, 1991)


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