just because you can’t remember

In The New York Times “Sunday Book Review,” with a very cool cover by Maira Kalman, James Collins wrote the essay at the back, “The Plot Escapes Me,” on whether there’s a point to reading books when we can’t remember what’s in them. Although I do have difficulty remembering what I read, I admit this is a question I’ve never asked myself.

He consulted Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain“(which I just ordered).

I recommend the essay, but we’re all busy. In what I consider to be the bottom line, Ms. Wolf said:

I totally believe that you are a different person for having read that book…I say that as a neuroscientist and an old literature major.

It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.

It’s there…You are the sum of it all.

I wanted to spread the good news. Keep reading.

18 thoughts on “just because you can’t remember

  1. Thanks for the great and reassuring quote. I hate that I can read such great literature and work really hard at it, and then a few years later I cannot remember a thing about it. This is perhaps the greatest reason why I always buy books and keep them rather than going to the library. Somehow having the actual text still in my house helps me feel like it hasn’t been lost forever… even if I can’t remember any of it.


  2. So glad you shared this. I feel rather stupid (senile) when someone mentions a book I’ve read–and enjoyed–and yet I can’t really remember much about it.

    Sometimes I look at my shelves and feel a fondness for a certain book, yet I remember little about it. Now, I know that feeling comes from the experience of reading that book. I like knowing it changed me in some way, even if I can’t remember how or why. 🙂


  3. I think Augustine said something like that once…”You are what you read.” Other words could probably be inserted for “read,” like “watch” and “listen to.” I guess that’s the good and the bad news. If only I remembered that every time I picked up a celebrity magazine or turned on “reality” TV.


  4. This assumes that we’re reading to learn something, to retain some knowledge, to become a better person. Why can’t we read for pure pleasure? Even if we don’t remember anything if we enjoyed it at the time, isn’t that enough?


    • Absolutely, Katherine. That’s the first point James Collins mentions in his essay: “…we read for the aesthetic and literary pleasure we experience while reading.” I should have mentioned that instead of jumping over it. Thanks for making sure that was clear.


  5. I read that article too. I sometimes forget character names, but I like to think I remember the novels that I read. Blogging about them does help me remember. I do believe that we are changed by what we read.


    • Sarah, I wish I remembered more about what I read. One of the reasons I enjoy writing here is I think pulling my thoughts together after I read helps me remembers details about the books. And I am constantly changed by what I read.


  6. This is fascinating Cynthia. I’ve just been reading a book by Nancy Huston, focusing on our need to read and write, unravelling the human need for narrative and meaning. I like the idea of this network of forgotten knowledge, like rock deep below the earth. Thanks for sharing this with us!


      • Hello Cynthia. I have only ever read Nancy Huston in French, she writes her books in both languages. The book I mentioned l’Espèce Fabulatrice is fascinating, she’s asked by a woman in a prison writing group, what is the need for fiction when life is already so crazy? This book is her in-depth answer to that very complex question! In terms of her fiction, I really enjoyed The Mark of an Angel and Fault Lines.


        • Wow, I haven’t read anything in French in years but I’m tempted to order this book in French instead of English, where the title is also good but not as good: The Tale-Tellers: A Short Study of Humankind. Thanks, Susanna!


  7. Cynthia, thanks for sharing the Collins essay. I love what Wolf said — and certainly I feel changed by many of the books I read. I’m often surprised by the phenomenon of not having spontaneous recall when asked about the title or author of books I’ve read recently — even books I’ve admired and enjoyed. (I’m relieved to know it’s just not an effect of aging!)


  8. I love the summed up thoughts in this. I figure reading a good book is a bit like taking a good trip, you might not remember all the moments, but there will be singular ones that stand out, effect you for perhaps even, the rest of your life. And on the whole you are changed.

    Great post!


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