Say it wasn't all for nothing...
June 5, 2008 11:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm strugging to come to terms with the fact that I've read such a seemingly extraordinary number of books yet seem to remember so very little. The obvious answer is to apply oneself more rigidly, in future, to study; to take notes and review them, etc. However, I really don't feel like writing extensive plot summaries every time I read a book, neither does this help me deal with the very distressing realisation that I don't know as much as I should do.

I notice that I feel stupider and more ignorant when I pass through long periods of not reading. Sometimes, though, if I'm particularly engrossed in a book I will remember rather effortlessly something obscure and (at the time apparently unimportant) from something I've read years ago.

My question is:

Is there any particular method of honing this sort of mysterious recollective experience through meditation for example? It would also help for remembering distant and supposedly forgotten memories of real events.

I've gained a lot through books beyond the immediate in-the-moment joy of reading good prose, I know that. For one, my vocabulary's far bigger than it perhaps might have been and I seem to have developed a fairly good sense of rhythm - but I expect more from the reading experience. For one, I feel like I'm missing out on this whole concept that writers have talked about for eons regarding knowledge being a faithful companion in times of boredom. The joy of the inner life, etc.

What does Metafilter think?
posted by Zé Pequeno to Education (22 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I, for one, think that you're putting undue and unneccessary pressure on yourself.

What's wrong with simply having in-the-moment pleasure of reading? Sometimes that's all a book can give you. If it speaks to you on a deeper level, great, but if not, that's okay too. I have the suspicion that you feel like you have to have each book you read Mean Something To You, and you're trying to force it to rather than just relaxing and letting it happen, or not, as you and the book see fit. And that may actually be preventing you from retaining things, because the back of your mind is too busy weighing and evaluating instead of just viscerally reacting.

If you let yourself just react, you may have more things stick with you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:15 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read books two or three times if it's so important to you to remember details. Good books are worth multiple reads, they'll reward you in multiple ways.

Otherwise, don't stress about not remembering all the details. Do you remember the name of every character from whatever TV show you watched last night?
posted by bluejayk at 11:17 AM on June 5, 2008

I can identify with the feeling you're having. While I don't know a way to keep you feeling the way you do after you read a great book forever, I've found that trying to pay attention to each and every line and underlining lines you enjoy to really increase my enjoyment. If I want, I can always go back and reread those lines and reclaim some of that feeling.
posted by JauntyFedora at 11:17 AM on June 5, 2008

I am like you; I don't remember much of what I read, but I do enjoy it. Maybe it's just a question of the way your brain is wired? I guess what I am saying is, I don't think you can force it.

All I hope is you don't let your perceptions and expectations about the way it should be, get in the way of the enjoyment and knowledge you do get (and I mean that in the most sincere way).
posted by nnk at 11:19 AM on June 5, 2008

you might find it satisfying to keep a reading journal. at the end of the day, spend a few minutes writing reflectively on what you read that day. Not plots or facts or details but how you responded to reading and anything that struck as you particularly important or worth remembering. This is not a work of art, it is for private consumption only so just write in casual, stream-of- consciousness style. Handwriting might work better than typing since you won't feel the same urge to rewrite or correct. Later you might not remember which thoughts came from which books but you would have richer sense of your experience of reading.
posted by metahawk at 11:24 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great responses so far. I guess the overall sentiment is that I'm trying too hard and I know you're right. I never used to place such importance on it until I went to university and began to rub shoulders with people who were equally as intelligent (or in many cases far more so) as I. I'm extremely, ridiculously, obscenely competitive and that's when things all started to go wrong...
posted by Zé Pequeno at 11:26 AM on June 5, 2008

Best answer: What have you read? Like, what categories? Are you well versed in the classics, dating back to the Greek, and all the way through today?

I found myself having some similar thoughts a few weeks ago. I'm a high school senior (so your amount of reading may/may not be vastly greater), but I'm extremely well read. But the other day, I was thinking, "What have I read that's really changed me, that's been really memorable?"

So I made a list of my favorite books, my most thought-provoking books, the books that I thought everyone should read. This list is ridiculously varied, ranging from Persuasion by Austen to Leviathan to The Last Juror by John Grisham to A Boy's Will by Robert Frost. It's about 100 books strong, and growing every few days by 1 or 2.

Then, about a week ago, I decided to start adding classics (and just books in general) that I've always meant to read, but never got around to it.

Some of the list I've felt compelled to reread, as I've forgotten them entirely. Some of the list I've never read, and I've put half a dozen of those books on hold at my library. I've also found that when I don't read (I took English Composition 101 and 102 at the local community college this year--what a joke) for extended periods of time, I feel my intelligence slipping. Not even just vocabulary/word choice/comprehension, but even just general wit. Reading definitely keeps the mind nimble.

Now, as to your original question, I would recommend journaling your reading. You can go as far as you want with it, but I recommend doing it on paper, with a pen or pencil, and not treating them as plot summaries. If you'd like, just jot down your thoughts on a book after you read it, or keep it handy and write constantly. Letting the words flow through your hands will help retain knowledge, and the log will let you look back in the future.

I'm positive it wasn't all for nothing!
posted by Precision at 11:28 AM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hah, I took too long. Good call, Metahawk.
posted by Precision at 11:30 AM on June 5, 2008

This used to freak me out too. I read, well, all the time. About to finish a PhD in literature and I earn my living as a book editor. I will remember the most minute detail from a book I read 7 years ago and then not remember basic plot elements from a book I read 2 months ago. I used to think that this was because I read too much. Not so - people I know who read similar amounts can remember far more than I can. Eventually, I stopped worrying about it. I do re-read books a lot, though. They are often better the second or third time around.

I realize this isn't perhaps the most helpful answer, but just wanted to let you know that I hear you and hell, it's just one of those things.
posted by meerkatty at 11:35 AM on June 5, 2008

Previously, recently.
posted by rooftop secrets at 11:43 AM on June 5, 2008

SuperMemo works for me.
posted by Nattie at 11:57 AM on June 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Get over the taboo against writing in books. It's easier if you buy used books. Now I always keep a pen--usually a red one--with any book I'm reading, and I underline or mark any interesting passage. After I finish the book, I pick it up a few weeks later and skim the marked passages, refreshing my memory; this takes just a few minutes. Later, I can find the interesting bits very quickly.
posted by neuron at 12:59 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm just like you. I second the person who suggested journaling. And do it online on your own blog or web site, so you have some accountability ;-) .

I was thinking of starting a blog about things I read, and posting my ideas as soon as I have them. Then I could go back to reference things later on, and have a growing backlog of my thoughts on written matter, my favorite authors, their best and worst books, etc. You could try it too.

There are lots of us in cyberspace who would be interested in what you come up with!
posted by frosty_hut at 1:15 PM on June 5, 2008

Anki is a free version of supermemo.

Here is a wired article on the author of SuperMemo. I didn't memorize the URL though, just googled it. Maybe if you put all of your notes online using Zotero or something you could google them up later?
posted by mecran01 at 1:17 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

While I have the same "problem" as you do, I have the opposite approach. Not having great recall of what I've read makes the second(and beyond, for some books) time through any given book as good as or better than the first. When I know something great's coming up, but can't quite remember the details, I'm all the more eager to get there.

The caveat here is that I read entirely for pleasure/escapism, and my idea of pleasure is not the classics, philosophical writings, or things with "real literary merit," so take my outlook as you will.
posted by owtytrof at 1:30 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I never used to place such importance on it until I went to university and began to rub shoulders with people who were equally as intelligent (or in many cases far more so) as I. I'm extremely, ridiculously, obscenely competitive and that's when things all started to go wrong...

This is the problem.

Your focus is on competing, rather than on the subjects of the books. Or your focus is on remembering, rather than on the subjects of the books. Your focus is on YOU -- on ego -- rather than on the subjects of the books.

First of all, now that you're out of university and don't have to pass any tests, make sure you read ONLY what you want to read. And by that, I don't mean read only what you think you should read to impress people, or to "be smarter," or to "be more well-rounded," or whatever... I mean only read books if their subjects (characters, plots or some other intrinsic elements) interests you. That's one of the great joys of being out of school. There are no more assignments!

(Also, there's NO sin in quitting a book. If you've read 100 pages and you're bored, read something else. Life is short; there are a gazillion books; any time you're wasting on a boring book is time you could be spending on an interesting one. You do not get points for finishing a boring book. Those days are over.)

Becoming a "Renaissance Man" -- or something similar -- is like getting a girlfriend/boyfriend. You hinder yourself by trying, by being desperate. You get mates by plunging into life (as opposed to plunging into mate-finding). By running with your passions (as opposed to stroking your ego), you magically become attractive. Mates find YOU. Similarly, by plunging into knowledge that interests you (and by refusing to waste time on stuff that bores you), you become "that smart guy."

If you're interested in a wide range of topics -- and if you keep exploring them and exploring them -- you'll become a polymath; if you're interests are more narrow (but you explore with just as much fervor), you'll become a specialist. Either way, people will be awed by your knowledge. But this will be less likely to happen if you TRY to awe them with your knowledge.

(By the way, are you SURE those college friends recalled as much as you think they did? How many times did they say, "Well, in this book I read ten years ago, it said..." More likely: the were continual readers and they talked about whatever was in the book they were currently reading -- or in one they read recently.)

There are many topics I love. One of them is history. I find that while I'm reading a particular history book, I love it. But -- as with you -- once I'm done, I often forget most of it. I'll read a whole book on the history of Venice (or whatever) and afterwards have no recall.

Disappointing, but I'm too interested to worry much about it. So I read another history book and another. I'm not doing this to impress. I'm doing it to get my history fix.

The interesting thing is that the forgotten stuff isn't really forgotten. It's in there somewhere. And as I read more and more books, they reinforce each other. So I'll be reading some other book on Venice, and I'll get a sense of deja vu while reading some fact. I'd read it before and forgotten it. The second encounter helps cement it in my brain. The more times I encounter the same info -- especially if I encounter it from multiple directions (e.g. from different authors) -- the more likely I'll remember it.

I suspect that we've evolved to forget (in that impermanent form of forgetting I mentioned above) stuff we've only heard from one person. Our brains think, "Just one guy out of all the guys I know told me that, so it's probably not all that important." One book is sort of like one guy. But if you hear/read the same info from three very different guys/books, it sticks.

If you're super-competitive, you should really try to remember that the best way to compete in almost anything is not to compete. Not to think about competing. The best way is to think about the SUBJECT of the competition. Master the subject. Race-car drivers don't compete. They drive cars really well.
posted by grumblebee at 1:42 PM on June 5, 2008 [6 favorites]

Seconding neuron on annotation. I consistently resisted scribbling in books until this year, when out of necessity, I made myself mark up an 800-page history of the Ottoman Empire.

Now, I always read with a bright yellow highlighter and a red pen. It's a little frustrating at first (Read, read, read, stop. Go back. Highlight. Repeat.), but after a bit it's just about as fluid as reading, and I find that the act of highlighting or jotting down a note helps cement stuff. Even better, when you need to review a book, the highlighted sections are a useful summary to jog the memory, and it's easy to pick out quotes and facts.

It takes some getting used to. I had to consciously work to relax my mind and fight the fear that I might be missing the "important parts" and marking superfluous stuff as significant in my memory for all eternity. I think that's one reason it's easier with nonfiction -- it's easier to decide "oh, hey this is a fact I should highlight" than it is to say "this section of narrative is definitely significant." But ultimately, reading is (or ought to be) about what you find important. Highlight whatever you find profound, beautiful, witty -- it'll help your brain fill in the rest.

Of course, highlighting is right out if you read a lot of library books. But I think it's an essential memory aid for those you own.
posted by ecmendenhall at 2:10 PM on June 5, 2008

Ecmendenhall's comment on "the fear that I might be missing the 'important parts'" hits home for me. I've found I do better when I try to pick a limited amount to remember, rather than every piece of data in the book.

A lot of study guides I've read say you should preview and ask yourself questions before you begin reading factual material (history or science, for example). I have way more books than I can actually read, so I know I'll never get through them all. So sometimes, I'll pick up a book I know I won't read through all the way, and just see what I can get out of the whole book in half an hour. I read the chapter titles and subheads, if there are any, and maybe try making a very high level outline of the whole thing - no more than three items per chapter.

For fiction (literature), the opposite approach has worked well for me on the few times I've tried it: I'll read the whole thing, for pleasure, then go back and summarize it - major plot points, major characters. Occasionally I'll try giving myself a little writing assignment so I have to notice and think about the work more deeply.

There's also the old adage that you never really know something until you teach it. You could try journalling from the perspective of describing what you've read to someone else who will never read it. Could you explain it to your dad or your niece? If not, leaf through the pages some more until you can.

Finally, though, the thing I've really learned lately about remembering is this: it's all about reviewing. That's the point behind SuperMemo and Anki - the more you review, the better you remember. So, whatever approach you take - a personal journal, book outlines, whatever - go back and re-read them. Often. And repeatedly.

Thanks for asking this. I'm off to go take my own advice!
posted by kristi at 8:05 PM on June 5, 2008

I'm in a similar boat. I've read and enjoyed quite a few books, but, as I pass from book to book, all previous books seem to grow a little fainter in my memory.. until they are more like a person whom I was once friends with but now realize is a complete stranger. If that makes sense. In the past year, I've tried to prevent the estrangement between myself and the books I've enjoyed by keeping a book journal online. I made mine over at LiveJournal, but you could do it anywhere. Since it's your journal, you can do whatever you want with it. You don't necessarily have to write extensive plot summaries. At different times, I've jotted down a few notes about plot, how I related to the characters, how the book made me feel, or other provocative elements. If you're the type who makes notations in the book, you can merely make a list of the stuff that you found interesting: quotations or passages that you'd like to be able to recall/reread without leafing through the book or other comments you may have written in the margins (with page numbers). I find that this system works really well. I have complete control over what I want to remember, how I want to compile the information, and how much or how little I want to write. It's funny.. writing a plot summary sounds like dreaded school work, but sometimes when you've reveled in every page of a hard-to-put-down book, it's just as difficult to stop writing than it was to stop reading!
posted by Mael Oui at 8:44 PM on June 5, 2008

Yeah, I'm like that, and having an intellectually competitive personality, it confuses and annoys me (though I know it shouldn't) to have someone point out things like "Of course 'Do it to Julia!' sounds familiar, it's the climatic quote from 1984." I believe I should know that. I read the book. I know what it's about. I'd forgotten that detail. And yet I remember the exact detail of dozens of other things. I also get the "word on the tip of my tongue" effect a lot, and I believe it's a related phenomenon.

The problem is not that I didn't remember the quote, it's that I thought I should. How many people out of a hundred wouldn't have remembered it, or even have read the book? Stop judging yourself harshly for your occasional failure of memory and ignoring your constant successes of memory. Accept that you have a good, but not perfect memory, and let the details of your mnemonic capacity slide. Unless you're being examined on it, it's OK to forget a detail of something you bring up in conversation, even a very important detail. People will--as in my example--remind you, if they care.

Also, while you're counting how often they do it to you, you're probably not counting how often you do it to them. Try that, and if you're in the habit of doing it a lot, scale it back and be more gentle about it.

One interesting thing about SuperMemo: the time that you're starting to forget a book is not only the optimal time to re-read it for learning, it's also (in my experience) a time when re-reading it is emotionally satisfying. Having forgotten some salient detail, but remembered others, might be a good indicator of that time.

Generally as a writer or conversationalist it is good to know a lot about a little, and a little about a lot. Being a wide reader creates that kind of knowledge base; to use it, when writing or talking to others, is what reading is for. However, being entertaining company is more important. If you're in the habit of making "declarations", wind it back a bit. Acknowledge the gaps in your knowledge. It's OK to not know things. Much of our social structure is based around constantly reminding people of things that one might expect them to remember, having done it daily - that's why we have clocks, calendars, tack up instructions everywhere, and have "refresher training" and manuals.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:48 PM on June 5, 2008

YMMV, but I find that I remember history much better if I read a compelling historical novel or biography. I think there's something about the human brain that remembers facts and theories better if they're embedded in a "story" about a person that you feel that you know.

Depending on your personal "learning style", you may remember things better if they enter your brain aurally or pictorially. So you may want to explore books on tape, author interviews (audio or video), movie versions of books, comic-book format books, children's picture books, etc.
posted by r0w at 5:36 AM on June 6, 2008

Another recommendation to check out SuperMemo. I don't think it's a perfect fit but it may be close enough.
posted by BigSky at 7:49 AM on June 6, 2008

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