Forgetting What We Read

Although I had rather a long break from formal blogging, I wrote a lot in various other contexts during my absence, and thought that I might as well occasionally post something that I come across in some random and neglected corner of my files, that has previously been posted on some social network, online forum, or e-mail discussion.

James Collins writes:

“There is a difference,” she said, “between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory. The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”

Did this mean that it hadn’t been a waste of time to read all those books, even if I seemingly couldn’t remember what was in them?

“It’s there,” Wolf said. “You are the sum of it all.”

This was very encouraging, and it makes intuitive sense: we have been formed by an accretion of experiences, only a small number of which we can readily recall. You may remember the specifics of only a few conversations with your best friend, but you would never ask if talking to him or her was a waste of time. As for the arts, I can remember in detail only a tiny fraction of the music I have listened to, or the movies I have watched, or the paintings I have looked at, but it would be absurd to claim that experiencing those works had no influence on me. The same could be said of reading.

And yet we tend to read to gain and remember information, and so will naturally feel dissatisfied when we discover that we don’t. I forget most of what I read. However, many of the books that I have forgotten have profoundly shaped my character, others have left behind mental accretions of knowledge that now lack citation, some books leave strong emotional memories, still others have left little actual memory, while still somehow making their subject matter more accessible on future attempts. In general I find that the best way to remember something is to put it into one’s own words and discuss it with others.

Do you remember what you have read well? What are some of the strategies that you employ to help you?

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in My Reading, Quotations. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Forgetting What We Read

  1. Matt J. says:

    I used to feel that I remembered almost nothing of what I read. Blogging through books, even if only to highlight a few interesting passages and boil them down has dramatically helped – more even than discussions with friends it seems. Writing is a stronger exercise than yacking about it.

    • Completely agree. I always try to work recent reading into my writing in some way or other (one reason why I have reviewed or summarized a few books in great detail lately, even though the resulting posts are among the least popular on my blog). It makes such a difference.

  2. Pingback: The Importance of Forgetting | Alastair's Adversaria

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