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How Much Do You Remember Of Books You Read Years Ago?

A photograph of two books I can barely remember - Celia Rees' Sovay and Kate Morton's The House At Riverton

(I’m considering 8 years or more to be ‘years ago’, as it matches my blog’s age and is only one year off the time I’ve been reading avidly.)

This is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about how my knowledge of the books I’ve read fails at times, then felt glad that I’ve made notes and written reviews… but there are a lot of books I haven’t made notes of, and quite a number are those I’ve read since I started blogging.

It’s bad enough when you can’t remember a book you read a year ago. I’m trying to create a list of conversation points for a book but struggled after two – and it’s a book I know I loved. I can even remember the general concept and sentiment behind it, a lot of the plot too (granted, it wasn’t a long book) but I know there was a lot more to it than that.

Even with notes, it can be a struggle to remember. The problem with some notes is that because you’re making them at the time of reading, despite the fact you know that you have to be careful with details because out of context what you’re writing down might not make sense, there will still always be notes that don’t work long term, where the best will in the world couldn’t help you ‘translate’ them later.

I find that once I’ve read a book twice, remembering is pretty easy. I won’t have an exact grasp of all the content but I’ll be able to speak about it in perpetuity, whether further studies are conducted or not. Writing more than one post can help me remember a book I’ve read once but it’s never as useful in this sense as a re-read. I’m not much of a re-reader generally but I’m definitely a re-reader in terms of realising I can’t remember a book, finding that troublesome, and doing something about it. (These will be books of which I remember having a particulary emotional reaction or studious interest. Some books I can’t remember and I’ve no plans to change the situation.)

I had a favourite book for a long time which was replaced in my affections when I was a bit older and found better books. I can tell you I liked the magic and the reversal of power in the otherwise factually-based society, and I can tell you that I’ve since read others’ opinions on it and came to call into question a section that I hadn’t noticed was problematic at the time because I was too young to understand it. I can tell you there was a princess, a warrior woman, a person who had a disability, and a few other people. But I can’t tell you the story, and I haven’t a clue who the other people were. (That was The Secrets Of The Jin-Shei which I will re-read at some point.)

On the other hand, I could talk about Northern Lights – read twice – for ages; I found the idea of reviewing it too daunting but I’ve written about the trilogy before.

I opened my reading database for 2009, the year before I started blogging, wherein most of the books I read did not receive a belated review. Of the 27 on the list, I could talk about 7 of them with confidence, however this number includes Stephenie Meyer’s first book which would be difficult to forget given the popularity and general talk, two are factual history books on subjects I know well in general, one is historical fiction which didn’t differ from the fact too much (thus I can remember where it did), one is a memoir of someone with a highly unique story, one I’ve gone back to many times since, and the last is The Hobbit. A few I could give a vague summary for – time period, location, how I felt about it, and the rest I really couldn’t say. And that’s scary.

Some years ago I wrote about the ‘production line’ I saw in my blogging and how it affected my reading. It was different to this post today – I hadn’t been reading avidly for long enough to truly forget at that point – but going back to it I’m reminded of my thoughts of being engaged in a text. It goes hand in hand with what I said above about note taking and writing other posts – I’m engaging in my reading even more now than I was in 2013, but that forgetfulness still lingers. I expect the way we naturally change over time also plays a part.

(As I’ve mentioned 2013, I thought I’d open my database for that year as well – 76 books, 24 I remember the general summary for.)

Interestingly, I don’t think that reading less would affect this forgetfulness. It’s all about the progression of time and the fact that unless you revise, you’re going to have trouble remembering the more time moves on. The more you read the more likely you are to come across books that say similar things or have characters that remind you of others and so on that will cause you to confuse texts.

Apart from re-reading or writing enough notes that you might as well transcribe the entire book, there’s no way around the problem. Perhaps as some say the information gets stored in our heads somewhere but if that’s so, science hasn’t yet reached the point where we can get that information back without re-reading. As much as a reading experience can last, it definitely has a use by date and unlike a shop shelf where you can look for food items with longer dates on them, there’s no saying what a book will be like.

How much do you remember? (Your own ‘years ago’ may vary – I’d like your thoughts on that, too!)

 
 

Andrew Blackman

June 27, 2018, 8:48 pm

Hi Charlie, I love this post! It’s something I think about a lot, and in fact it’s why I started blogging all those years ago. I hated the idea of forgetting books I’d enjoyed, so I planned to write reviews of every single one. Well, that didn’t happen… But still, I find that writing a review does improve my chances of remembering a book, perhaps because of the extra attention I pay and the process of going over it and thinking about it again. But I agree, the only way to really cement it is to reread. I do wonder, though, whether that’s partly because the books I reread are the ones I loved and so am more likely to remember anyway. Sample bias, perhaps?

Kelly

June 27, 2018, 9:53 pm

It makes me feel better to know that others, younger than I, also forget books they’ve read. Considering I rarely, if ever, read a book a second time (there are just too many waiting be be read the first time) I can’t say whether that would help me to remember…. but I do find when I’ve reviewed them on my blog, I can look back and usually bring many details to mind.

With some from years ago (40 years or more, in some cases) I can remember loving them, but not necessarily why. I’m afraid to read them again for fear of not having that same sentiment.

Carmen

June 28, 2018, 1:59 pm

Some plot twists stick in your mind no matter how many years it’s been since you read the book. I remember some books precisely because of those things and nothing else. Re-reading in some cases has helped me evoke the emotions I felt the first time I read them, but I agree with the comment above that one can also feel disappointed in a story one previously loved due to the time passed or that one is no longer the target audience for the book. That happened to me with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I read it and re-read it several times pre-blogging; I recently re-read it for review purposes and no longer felt in awe as I did all those years ago.

Reviewing the books I read helps me remember them, that’s one of the reasons I blog. I feel that if I don’t review them after reading, the experience is wasted and can’t benefit me or anyone else. Since I have been blogging I have only chosen not to review two books, and I felt guilty after.

Lisbeth @ The Content Reader

July 5, 2018, 12:38 pm

I tend to forget what I read about, except books I really loved. However, I read a book just a couple of months ago and when I started thinking of it, I could not for my life remember what it was about. Had to read the back cover to refreshen my mind. And I really like the book!
That is why blogging is so good. You can always go back to see what it was all about and how you liked it.

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