Reading and forgetting

May 23, 2011 at 12:00 am 10 comments

One of the questions that haunts me—it’s a question for philosophers and brain science—is, if you’ve forgotten a book, is that the same as never having read it?

— Tom Stoppard

I reckon it’s also a question for book bloggers! What do you think? Is forgetting a book the same as not reading it?

I think that, like everything else that happens to you, books and memories of books are largely internalized. You may have actively forgotten reading it, but it’s still in there somewhere and perhaps it’s time for a re-read. Or so I like to believe so that all those books I’ve forgotten weren’t a complete waste!

Sound off below!



Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , .

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. emily  |  May 23, 2011 at 2:29 am

    Mmm… isn’t an idea, like all the ideas that are books/books give you, a firing of a specific pathway of neurons (as are all experiences/actions in the brain), and, like learning to walk, the more you rehearse/dwell on that neuron pattern, the pattern strengthens. The question of forgetting is a question of mental muscle atrophy.
    I’ve seen “Sense and Sensability,” like, four times, and I still have no idea what is going to happen next, or who is who. All I know is: muted/sorrowful color palate towards the end with rain, and kate winslet and emma thompson, and, “These flowers are not from the hot house!” I have forgotten and re-forgotten this movie, but it is not the same as having never seen it.
    I am shamed to use a movie reference on a book blog, please forgive me. (Corey! – Re-reading “The Princess Bride” – still totally AMAZING!)

    • 2. Corey  |  May 23, 2011 at 7:37 am

      So you’re postulating that, in reading a book once, we as casual readers are simply not rehearsing a neuron pattern enough for it to stick and thus we forget books (or movies) we’re already read? And by re-reading or really “close” reading something, we’re more actively dwelling on said neuron patterns and thus we actively remember reading the book? Just making sure I understand! If so, sounds pretty interesting! The brain is so (har har) mind-boggling sometimes…

      (Re-reading The Princess Bride is one of my favorite things to do! Rock on! How is it so much better than the movie when the movie is also so amazing?! Kudos to all involved, bein sur.)

  • 3. Britney  |  May 23, 2011 at 4:36 am

    I love rereading books that I don’t quite remember. It allows me to experience the suspense and excitement of the first read all over again.

    However, I also enjoy rereading books I do remember – sometimes the author leaves little hints about what is coming ahead that you don’t pick up on the first time around and rereading the book allows you to experience the entire book.

    That said, I don’t remember most of what I read, and often it’s because the book isn’t worth remembering.

    • 4. Corey  |  May 23, 2011 at 7:38 am

      I totally agree about re-reading. While sometimes it’s nice to re-read something and know/remember exactly what you’re going to get going into it, it’s also nice to get to relive that first read sometimes.

      And I think re-reading the Harry Potter series was just like you say about the author leaving hints; it was so much more rewarding the second time around.

  • 5. Rex  |  May 23, 2011 at 5:23 am

    I don’t think it’s the same, but doesn’t it depend on what you mean by “remember”? I read Huck Finn four times by the time I was 18 and each time the experience was different. If you think I can remember much of it, you would be wrong. If someone asked me to recall a passage I liked in particular, I couldn’t do it. I don’t remember much of it, not literally. But I believe I remember the spirit of the book, not sure what the phenomenon would be called, but the point being, just because you don’t remember the precise twists and turns in the plot and the name of every character doesn’t mean you don’t remember the book. I think that some books do impress us more than others, and maybe that’s the real issue here, but that’s an uncontrollable variable, one with a much different meaning than “memory.”

    • 6. Corey  |  May 23, 2011 at 7:39 am

      Great point! You’re absolutely right about the levels or layers of remembering. You can remember the feeling of book or how you enjoyed it without being able to articulate exactly why or quote a direct passage. For me personally, I know I’ve recommended lots of books based on that positive, but ineffable, memory of them!

  • 7. Dad  |  May 24, 2011 at 6:10 pm


    • 8. Corey  |  May 25, 2011 at 4:00 am

      Wow. Care to elaborate?

  • 9. Em  |  June 9, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    I think that any book we have read has had an impact on us. If we don’t remember it, there might be a reason why and I’m not sure rereading is necessary, although a rereading (with any book) will be a different experience. I think that it is why book bloggers startedto blog: the fear of forgetting!

    • 10. Corey  |  June 10, 2011 at 12:55 am

      Ha, maybe you’re right about why we blog! And I tend to agree with you that everything we’ve read has had an effect on who we are even if we don’t remember everything about it.


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