I finished Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything a couple of days ago, and can’t wait to post my review of it next week. But, like most great nonfiction, there were a lot of anecdotes and facts that didn’t make it into the review and I wanted to share.
This section is from the chapter on “The End of Remembering,” the transition from a culture that valued memory to a culture that can’t seem to remember anything. One of the reasons Foer discusses is the proliferation of books — once we could write things down, it wasn’t that important to remember them. And as a result, the way we read started to change. Foer talks about this change in a way I think many book bloggers will find familiar:
Now we put a premium on reading quickly and widely, and that breeds a kind of superficiality in our reading, and in what we seek to get out of books. You can’t read a page a minute, the rate at which you’re probably reading this book, and expect to remember what you’ve read for any considerable length of time. If something is going to be made memorable, it has to be dwelled upon, repeated.
In his essay, “The First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” says Darnton. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed in their consciousness.”
Today we read books “extensively,” without much in the way of sustained focus, and, with rare exceptions, we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. Even in the most specialized fields, it can be a Sisyphean task to try to stay on top of the ever-growing mountain of words loosed upon the world each day.
I don’t think I’m an exceptionally bad reader. I suspect that many people, maybe even most, are like me. We read and read and read, and we forget and forget and forget. So why do we bother? Michael de Montaigne expressed the dilemma of extensive reading in the sixteenth century: “I leaf through books, I do not study them,” he wrote. “What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else’s. It is only the material from which my judgement has profited, and the thoughts and ideas without which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forgot.” He does on to explain how “to compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory,” he adopted the habit of writing in the back of every book a short critical judgment, so as to have at least some general idea of what the tome was about and what he thought of it.
Sound at all like keeping a blog? I do think keeping the blog has made me more conscious of my reading. I can’t remember most of the books I read for fun before college, or even during college, but since I started writing reviews for the blog, I think I do remember more about the books I’ve read.
Has blogging helped with your book memory? And what do you think about the idea of reading “intensively” versus “extensively”? What would it take to make your reading more intensive?