On Reading and Forgetting Books
[image description: A circular cutout in a wall of books, through which an open book appears to be floating. There’s a magical mystery bookshop vibe.]
After taking a hiatus for several months, I returned to Twitter this past weekend. I’d taken a break from it because it was making me depressed and I was rolling my eyes so much I was giving myself a headache. But I decided to come back and saw the tweet that inspired this blog post.
A writer tweeted about how she has a friend who reads 70+ books a year and forgets the book 10 seconds after finishing it. She asked her fellow writers to respond with their feelings and for power readers to weigh in.
She received a ton of responses, most of which were from writers who said how sad it was that the books this friend is reading are so forgettable. There was a lot of lamenting and bellyaching over it.
Well, book nerds––*puts on ranty panties*––I’ve got some thoughts.
I think asking readers to be able to remember every detail about every book they read is ridiculous. We don’t expect foodies to remember every meal they’ve ever eaten. We don’t expect cashiers to remember every single person whose chewing gum they ring up. There are people, myself included, who will forget someone’s name within seconds after meeting them.
In that way, reading is like anything else. We remember what we liked the most and what resonated the most deeply and filter the rest out of our memories.
Furthermore, forgetting the details doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of the book. I forget meals I’ve eaten, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t tasty. I forget people’s names and we still go on to have a lovely conversation. I could thoroughly enjoy a book and still not remember every point of the plot or the characters’ names.
Besides, reading is designed to be an in-the-moment activity. With few exceptions, you’re probably alone when you’re reading and you’re following the protagonist minute to minute through the story. Reading requires you to be present, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t continue replaying every single moment from the book after you’ve finished reading. You don’t continue living in the movie after you’ve left the theater.
Not remembering books is less about the quality of the books than it is about the fallibility of human memory. Forgetting things, including books, is normal!
I feel like I have a good perspective on this because I’m a power reader and a writer. Being one myself, I know writers have a tendency to get precious about our work. Of course we want readers to remember every detail of all of our books, we spent ages writing and editing them! The idea of someone forgetting a portion or the entirety of the art you’ve created after consuming it, especially after you spent SO MUCH TIME writing it, is frustrating. But I don’t think extrapolating how a reader feels about a book based on how well they remember it is a productive way of thinking.
I also don’t think it’s the job of the artist to try to control or influence what the consumers of their art do with it once it’s out into the world. But that’s another rant.
If you remember every single book you read, you’re probably not reading a ton. Which is fine! Any reading is better than no reading and I’m not judging the quantity. I’m just stating the fact that by nature of numbers, it’s easier to remember things when there are fewer of them. The writer who started all this on Twitter later went on to post that she remembers everything from the 10-20 books a year she reads.
Personally, I’d rather read more books than read the number of books my brain will allow me to remember everything about. It’s fine if others feel differently. However, I don’t think anyone, especially writers, should be telling readers it’s sad they can’t remember a book if the writer themselves isn’t reading that much. Not only is it hypocritical (who do writers think keeps them in business?), writers judging readers is never a good look.