Sunday, September 19, 2010

DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOU READ?


In an interesting article on the back page of the NYT Book Review, James Collins explores the idea that most of us do not remember what we read even mere weeks after. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title, author, or even existence of a book they read a month ago much less its contents." He suffers from this deficit and so do I. I could not tell you the plot of a book I read six months ago in all likelihood.

My husband does not forget. He can recall the plot of a book read years ago. Good thing he's the professor.

Maryanne Wolfe, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, assures Collins that reading is useful for the basic reason it creates pathways in the brain and because we are possessors of a broader knowledge for having read--even if we can't remember it. "You are the sum of it all."

I've found that the books I remember best are ones I have talked or written about. In other words by verbalizing it, I moved what was a passive experience on some level into a more active one. I have put words out into the world. Reviewing a book online, belonging to a book group, belonging to online discussion groups, talking with friends, all make the book stick. Maybe we remember books read in high school because our English teachers made us discuss them.

Do you remember what you read? Can you sum up the plot of a book you read a year ago? A month ago?

36 comments:

George said...

I can remember most of the good books I've read...and the bad ones. The books I forget about are the mediocre ones.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Considering how much you read, amazing. Good thing you're the professor too.

James Reasoner said...

Sometimes I can't even remember what I wrote a month ago.

Seriously, I usually remember whether or not I've read a particular book and if I liked it, but the plots, not so much. But some of the plots do stick in my head, and there doesn't seem to be any pattern to the ones that do and the ones that don't.

Dorte H said...

No!

Well, I do remember a very nice twist in a story by Martin Edwards that I read last week, but I only remember the really unusual endings.

On the whole I think it is an advantage when it comes to crime fiction. I like reading some of the four and five star books again - and the murderer ALWAYS comes as a surprise.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I felt this "forgetting" was a function of age and was quite relieved to find it was not--or not as much. I do remember my mother saying she was very happy she could no longer remember who did it, which allowed her to reread her favorite mysteries more than once. And with the exception of one or two more famous denouements, that is now true for me.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

I can remember pretty much every book I've ever read and i'm 62.I can still recall the cover and publisher of mass market paperbacks from the 60's. I can tell you whether I liked the book or not. I can't recall plots very well tho unless I've read it more than 2 or 3 times. Oddly enough I can recall the plots of movies I have not seen in 30 years. Must be the visual images sticks with me better.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can remember if I read a book but not the plot unless, as I said, I talked about it. I remember movies better but still not with the acuity I would wish for.

Richard R. said...

"Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title, author, or even existence of a book they read a month ago"

The people who read this blog are not "most people" so I think the answers you'll get here are not going to be typical. My daughter-in-law reads children's books (out loud to her kids), the newspaper and People magazine. That's it. She read just one book last year. That's more typical.

I think thoer who read e-books are less likely to remember as there is less specific physical contact, with an e-reader, every book is the same height, weight, thickness, etc. One less aspect of individuality.

I can't say I remember everything I read, but I usually remember the things I liked, at least for a year or three. I agree, if I write a review I'm more likely to recall details.

Ron Scheer said...

If I remember my cognitive science, reviewing something mentally after learning it helps make it "stick" in memory. I believe it's called "consolidation." Writing a review or keeping a journal achieves this.

I lose track of a plot if I don't keep reminding myself of the whole thread that got me to the present point in the story. Could also be because I'm a teacher, and I know I have to remember stuff like this to lead a class discussion.

pattinase (abbott) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pattinase (abbott) said...

Love that term, thanks.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Funny you'd ask that question. If Howard Gardener's right about his theory of multiple intelligences, then we all learn and know differently. I learn linguistically, so yeah, I remember what I read. Not what I see as much (although there is art that I love!), but reading? Yeah.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A study I read this week said we also tend to begin forgetting faces after age forty and especially men. Maybe audio books are the answer.

Rob Kitchin said...

I'm not bad at remembering what novels I've read, and if I look at my bookshelves I can recall in broad terms the plots of the novels there. Oddly I sometimes struggle remembering stuff in the books I've written. I have to go and look stuff in them for continuity or for lectures, etc. I am hopeless at names and people. I have whole conversations with people where I'm not only trying to remember their name but who the heck they are.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember names better than faces. I need to see someone three or four times before the face sticks. You can recite someone's name but not their face.
Your own books, huh? Modesty in the extreme perhaps.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I tend to forget what I read about ten minutes after I close the cover. Always have, so it's not a function of encroaching senility.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for that. I forget if it always happened or not. Oops.

Kerrie said...

I'm with you Patti. Most plots are in one eye and out of the other. Some stick, most are there under the surface for a few weeks, and if someone says the right words they'll re-surface, but weeks, months, years on - no hope at all. That probably explains why I can re-read Agatha Christie titles so easily - but with most others I have a faint memory of how it is all going to end, so I have my own inbuilt "spoilers"

pattinase (abbott) said...

Love that line, Kerrie!
Yes, there are only two Christies I remember too well to reread. And I bet you can guess which ones. Everything else is open for business.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent question. Sometimes yes and sometimes no is the simple if unhelpful answer.

Some books I can't remember at all, others I rmember reading but that's it, and still others I have a vague outline in my head. But some more memorable ones - bad as well as good - do stick in the mind.

For instance, when I read Ed McBain's Mary, Mary - and if he ever wrote a worse book please don't tell me - I kept thinking, "no, he can't really be going there, can he?"

He did. It was memorable; awful but memorable.

Certainly Agatha Christies, for instance, I remember the central plot twist. Books I really liked like Lonesome Dove or The Prince of Tides I remember in much greater detail.

Or, just read what George wrote - the good and bad stand out more than the mediocre.

Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

Today was a perfect example, though not a book per se. We went to see a revival of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession starring Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins. We'd seen it over 30 years ago with Ruth Gordon and Lynn Redgrave. (It was pretty hard to accept those two as mother and daughter!)

Now I remembered the central premise but not any of the supporting characters while my wife says she didn't remember it at all.

Jeff M.

PS - Jones was wonderful in a role unlike any I've seen her play before.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Do you think it might be at TKTS on a Saturday night. Probably not. I'd love to see Cherry Jones in something. Heard about her for years but only saw her in brief roles in movies.
I don't always remember the bad even. What I remember as I said are books I've talked about. Or books that swept me away. Or books that clued me into some new way of thinking. For instance, THE TRUE BELIEVER, which has explained so much. I doubt there is anyone who had read LONESOME DOVE and not remembered it.
Ha. Ruth Gordon and Redgrave-the height difference alone would throw me off.

Anonymous said...

Patti, the show is in previews so I would definitely check, but the theater was pretty full and I don't see it listed on the Friday daily email of available shows.

Still, can't hurt to try.

Jeff

I said the same thing about the height difference. In this case it was the reverse. I never thought of Cherry Jones as being particularly big or tall, but she towered over Sally Hawkins.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't find Cherry Jones's height but Sally Hawkins is listed at 5'5" and she was several inches taller.

Jeff

Loren Eaton said...

I can remember almost everything I've read or seen, which drives my family crazy because I don't understand why they can't.

Aaron said...

I remember general ideas but not specific details. It is crazy if I reread something, as it can be like reading it for the first time.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Amazing how differently our brains or memories work.

Dana King said...

Some books, yes. Many books I remember the same way I remember dreams, though I'll remember the book longer. (My dreams dissolve completely minutes after I wake up.) Images, and a few key elements. A memorable character, though I may not remember the character's name.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My dreams dissolve too. My husband's dreams, which always seem like an episode of 24, hang on.
Although I have a better memory than my husband for names and the minutia of people in our life. Also he has no memory for geographic data.
So it is not just that he has a better memory, rather that his memory works better in different areas than mine.

Anonymous said...

Some dreams are imprinted in my mind as I wake up and stay there as long as I remember to remember them. Others (the majority) dissolve as soon as I'm awake.

Jeff

Charles Gramlich said...

When I was younger I had nearly total recall of books I'd read and the basic plots and so on. Now I find that they run together a lot and I can't always recall many details. I have better recognition memory. Show me the book and a lot of details will come back to me.

Graham Powell said...

I can usually remember what I've read, and if I have any trouble, a small hint usually suffices to bring it all back.

About a year ago I was in a bookstore with my wife and picked up THE HIGH KING by Lloyd Alexander. I flipped it open to a section near the middle and remembered some of the dialog word-for-word, though I had read it about 25 years before.

Paul D. Brazill said...

I can't remember my own name some days. I had it sewn into my clothes to help but went around intoducing myself as Mark Spencer.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That's a great name, Paul. I have clothes I bought there in 1994 still making the rounds.

BV Lawson said...

Hey, Patti! My husband and I were talking about this the other day, when I came upon a list of books recommended for college-bound high school seniors. Although I'd ready many of them, I couldn't recall much in the way of details.

My husband, on the other hand, can often recall snippets of text verbatim. He doesn't have an eidetic memory, but he uses a visual map of sorts, when he's reading.

I think it may ultimately depend how each person's brain is wired, although studies have shown that if you review such things after you've read or experienced them right before bedtime, your brain will be more likely to place them into long-term memory while you sleep.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I never thought that memories were so variable--what we remember or forget.