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On Reading and Forgetting

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?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Trisha March 5, 2011, 10:27 am

    LOL! Not only do I mention this in my review, but tomorrows Sunday Salon is about this very topic!

    That section really did get me thinking, in large part because of blogging. I even wrote WHAT BLOGGERS DO right next to that last paragraph.

    Great minds think alike. 🙂

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 10:56 am

      Trisha: I just read your Sunday Salon – good post! It’s hard to read books that mention reading without automatically thinking of blogging. Great minds, indeed.

  • Kailana March 5, 2011, 10:30 am

    I have always been pretty good about remembering what I have read, but I think blogging has made me remember even more. There are still books that are not memorable and I can’t even remember reading, though!

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 10:58 am

      Kailana: There are definitely books that aren’t memorable, but I always hope to not read those!

  • Jeane March 5, 2011, 11:10 am

    I started blogging for that very reason- to help myself remember the books better. But in a way, I don’t mind forgetting- it makes it delightful to revisit a book when you don’t quite recall what’s going to happen next. I find that the style of writing often influences how fast or slow I read a book- some I breeze through quickly, intent on getting to the next page, others have such beautiful language I go through them slowly, savoring and pondering more on the sentences. Of course, how busy I am and distractions around me also influence how much I can concentrate on reading, but I think I much prefer the slower, thoughtful pace…

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 11:00 am

      Jeane: That’s a good point; if you forget things, it makes the remembering even more fun. I like reading slowly and thoughtfully too, but it does depend on the book and the style it’s written in.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) March 5, 2011, 11:33 am

    I definitely feel the urge to read extensively more than intensively. There are so many things I want to know about, and so many stories I want to experience as a reader. I rarely feel the urge to re-read anymore, but I used to re-read a lot when I was growing up. One thing I do try not to do is to read too quickly. It’s okay to slow down for a book that needs to be soaked in rather than breezed through. (But there are some books that are made to be read quickly, due to the proverbial page-turning quality that they have.)

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 11:02 am

      Christy: I think there are some benefits to reading extensively — you cover a topic from many angles and can make connections between them. I enjoy doing that a lot, but wouldn’t really be able to do it if I only read intensively.

  • Ash March 5, 2011, 6:17 pm

    Blogging has definitely helped my book memory. The thing is that since we read more books we have to forget some of them, usually we forget the ones we didn’t enjoy so much. I remember some books vividly years later and I know those are the ones that made an impact on me.

    I must read this as well. Darnton and Montaigne mentioned in one section– oh my!

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 11:04 am

      Ash: I think I remember some books that I really disliked as much as I remember ones I really loved. I think I forget the ones that were sort of “meh,” which is actually ok with me.

      And I thought of your Montaigne reading project when I read that quote!

  • Memory March 5, 2011, 7:50 pm

    I’m not sure how I feel about that first chunk. I read at a decent pace–about a page per minute for fiction and somewhat more slowly for nonfiction–and I wouldn’t say I read superficially. I consider, and remember, what I’ve read, even though I read quite a lot. I don’t always carry it with me down through the years, but if it struck a chord with me, I’ll trot it out whenever the opportunity presents itself. If it made enough of an impact, I reread it at least once.

    I find, too, that I remember less when I read slowly. I lose the thread and grow frustrated with the book, and with myself. If I’m going to get anything out of a narrative text, I need to read fairly quickly.

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 11:06 am

      Memory: I read about a page a minute as well, and I don’t necessarily think that’s superficial. But it depends on the book, and how difficult it is. And I agree with you about reading too slowly — sometimes that can make it hard.

  • Joy Weese Moll March 6, 2011, 10:11 am

    I’ve always been jealous of characters in books and movies (usually in settings from the 19th century or earlier) who can pull out a relevant quote for any situation. Now I know why no one has that skill anymore! We read too much!

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 11:08 am

      Joy: Me too! I always think that would be great, but I’m pretty bad at memorizing quotes. I’d love to be able to do it though.

  • Aths March 6, 2011, 10:41 am

    I guess blogging has helped me “remember” better. Previously, although I never read as many as since I started my blog, I didn’t remember most much either. Now though, I read more, but I remember more too. Plus, it’s a good thing that I can go back to a book’s review that I wrote a year or two ago and recollect my thoughts. This is a great post!

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 11:08 am

      Aths: I agree — I read a lot more now, and I think I do remember a lot more, too, thanks to writing things down.

  • Vasilly March 6, 2011, 5:27 pm

    Blogging doesn’t help my memory at all when it comes to reading! I used to be able to remember the books I’ve read just by looking at the cover, but now it’s getting harder and harder to do so. I don’t know if it’s because blogging exposes me to a lot more books than before. When I was younger, I definitely read more intensively. I used to pick up some of my favorite books and read them several times in the same year. Now I don’t do that because there’s so many new books to pick up. The funny thing about that is most of the books I read don’t make it to my favorites list. Maybe I should go back to rereading more often! One of the ways I read more intensively is that I reread some of the books I read before reviewing them. Kim, this is a great topic.

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 9:33 pm

      Vasilly: I think the cover recognition thing could just be part of seeing more and more books on blogs. Seeing reviews can just make it hard to remember your own books.

      I don’t know that I read more intensively when I was younger, but I do wish that I did it more.

  • Jennifer March 6, 2011, 7:22 pm

    I am amazed by how much some people read. While I think that I read a fair amount, I know that I could read more. But every year, I find myself not meeting my reading goals. I get suck in books sometimes. I’m not sure if that means that I am an intensive reader though because I am not the kind of person that can jump into quoting a great work of literature. I am amazed by people that can – I’m sure that they are intensive readers – my professors are the first people that come to mind. And it makes sense, they are constantly rereading the great works of fiction that they teach. And one day, I hope to be that kind of reader. But for now, I think I am definitely more of an extensive reader. And blogging helps me remember.

    • Kim March 6, 2011, 9:35 pm

      Jennifer: I go back and forth about how much I read — sometimes I think it’s a ton, and other times I feel like it’s not enough. I think it just depends who you compare yourself to. I think I agree with you though; for now it’s nice to be an extensive reader, but someday I might end up being more intensive.

  • Fyrefly March 7, 2011, 1:31 pm

    Heh, that’s absolutely why I started reviewing books in the first place, to help my terrible, terrible memory – not only can I not remember details from books I’ve read a long time ago, after a while, even my memory of my reaction to the books starts going fuzzy.

    I’ve been like this my whole life, and it’s really never particularly bothered me. When I was younger, I “solved” this problem by re-reading books a lot, and there was always something new to find (or re-find). Now I do less re-reading (too many new books to try!), and just try not to worry about retaining the information of the book forever and ever. I read for entertainment and enjoyment, so as long as I’m enjoying myself, I’m not terribly concerned about how much the of the book I’m permanently absorbing.

    • Kim March 8, 2011, 6:10 pm

      Fyrefly: Re-reading is a great solution to the problem of forgetting 🙂 I think I remember things in books after they’ve come up a couple of times.

  • Valerie March 14, 2011, 7:28 pm

    Like some commenters have already said, I used to re-read more when I was younger (especially as a kid). My reading choices were more limited back then — they were based on what I could find at the library (I was a frequent visitor) or the few times I got to pick something out of the Scholastic flyers or equally rare bookstore visits.

    I’m actually on a project (without a deadline) where I plan to re-read books I was required to read in high school. Should be interesting!

    Also, I think the books I don’t remember reading are the ones I’ve given away over the years. They weren’t good enough to keep, I guess!

    • Kim March 16, 2011, 5:45 pm

      Valerie: My childhood sounds so much like yours — tons of books from the library, with a few special purchases now and then. I love the idea of rereading from high school. I think that would be a lot of fun, and I”m sure I’d appreciate books now more than I did then.