• Reading Retention: Forget the book; remember the experience

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 13 comments

    You know that feeling when you get to the end of a paragraph or page of whatever you’re reading and you realize you have no idea what you’ve just read?

    I have that problem all the time… with entire books. Because my reading retention is atrocious.

    I’m currently reading a book about Shakespeare, and over the weekend, while thinking about my terrible retention skills (and totally ignoring the words as I continued reading them), I suddenly felt a sort of defeatism that almost made me drop the book and walk away.

    If I’m not going to remember any of these facts and anecdotes, I thought, what’s the point of reading this book? Or any book?

    I’ve spent the week thinking about this. Here’s where I landed.

    My Blue Hell

    I Googled “reading retention” and got a bunch of educational links containing strategies, some obvious (take notes), others unique (the moment you read something you want to remember, paraphrase it aloud to someone else).

    But I also got a piece from Ian Crouch at the New Yorker called “The Curse of Reading and Forgetting.”

    He begins with a situation in which I’ve often found myself: A friend recommends a book, Crouch begins reading it, and early on he realizes that not only has he read it before, but that he’s read it within the past couple of years!

    “Looking at my bookshelves,” Crouch writes, “the assembled books, and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting.”

    Not only is there all of this forgetting, but think also of all of the pointless remembering: I can give you a blow-by-blow account of the plot of My Blue Heaven; I can describe for you every moment of the Keyboard Cat videos; I can recite to you the lyrics of “Achy Breaky Heart” and “We Built This City.”

    It’s so depressing.


    “The Warm Sunlight in the Coffee Shop”

    But then Crouch drops a wonderful passage that made me feel instantly better: “If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place,” he writes. “What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection The Magic Barrel is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school.

    “That is missing the more important points, but it is something.”

    This reminded me of a post I wrote back in 2016, “Books Become Bookmarks: The benefits of keeping a reading list,” where I talked about how writing down the titles and authors of the books I read, as well as where I read them, often helped me retain something of the experience, even if little or nothing from the book itself.

    “Much of the joy of reading is found in the moment, the experience itself,” I wrote. “But there’s great pleasure to be had, as well, in the remembrance of that experience, in the ability to reflect on a book years later, and in rediscovering where, when — and this is crucial — who you were at the time.”

    Then I shared a few moments along the lines of Crouch’s experience with The Magic Barrel. And I’ve had more of them since. Last fall I was in Boston visiting friends and at the Harvard Coop, which I hadn’t been to in years, I bought a copy of A.M. Homes The Safety of Objects. I remember almost nothing about that story collection now… but I do remember choosing it at the store — the smells and sounds, the comforting layout of this place so familiar to me — and starting it in this hole-in-the-wall pizza joint in Harvard Square — a Harvard tour group came in, fresh-faced babies with their futures immediately in front of them, and let me tell you, they were hungry — and then lounging around with it on various benches and stoops, and then finishing it in Winthrop Square while waiting for a buddy to get off work, watching so many people fresh out of the office trying to do some of their own reading in the last of the day’s sunlight.

    And maybe that’s enough? If I had to choose between remembering that experience and remembering the plot details and/or specific passages or moments from the book, I would have to choose the former, the experience, almost every time.

    Of course it helps when that experience is out of the ordinary. This Shakespeare book I’m halfway through, I’ve read part of it at home, part of it on the treadmill at my gym. I doubt I’ll remember anything about the experience, just like I doubt I’ll remember much about the book itself. And that’s the worst of both worlds.

    But it’s better than not reading at all.


    Your Turn

    Ian Crouch writes that remembering the experience of reading a book “is missing the more important points.” Do you agree, or is it the experience that matters? Or does the answer lie somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    What are your tactics for better reading retention?

    Share with us a fond experience of reading a book — sights, smells, sounds, etc. — particularly if you remember little or nothing about the book itself.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    Barbara A Mealer

    I read because it takes me away from my current life and puts me in worlds I will never see or experience. It’s all about the journey of the character. I’ve read thousands of books and many I don’t remember, but during the time I was reading them, I enjoyed being transported to somewhere else and being someone else or watching the action. It’s all about the moment. You don’t need to retain everything you read. I remember reading Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boy, Judy Barton, the Wizard of Oz (9 of the 12 books) as a child. I can’t… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hey Barbara. “Chill and enjoy the journey” would’ve been a wonderful title for this post. I wonder if, when yo


    For me, the takeaway is why the book was written, what the author was trying to say, rather than the names of the characters or the town it’s set in. I think it’s better to remember where the flower grows best rather than its scientific name. The faster I read something, the more I can’t put a book down, the less I retain. Something that helps is to write a small paragraph about the chapter right after you read it. Writing it helps retention, and then if you forget anything you have already written the Cliff notes. Just tuck them… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hiya, E. I get what you’re saying about why a book was written, what the author is saying, etc. Do you retain those things? With fiction, I’m usually content carrying away a feeling rather than specific plot points or character names or whatever. Problem is, I usually don’t even retain that feeling. Maybe as an experiment we should write lyrics about the next book we read, and set them to either of those two songs. I’m sure it would aid retention, and it would put those songs to good use for once. Sort of a repurposing of shitty songs we… Read more »

    david lemke

    I ordered a book from amazon thinking it was the next one in the series. Yay! About twenty pages in to the read, something was familiar. (I have a friend who re-reads books every couple year. I never saw the point. There are so many books and so little time.) however, I continued reading the book to the end, enjoying it as much as the first time. How many of us re-watch movies and re-runs? Retention is an issue when reading non-fiction, but at least I kind-a know where the info is when I need it. How often do you… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Nabokov said “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” There are a lot of moving parts to what he’s talking about, but I do a fair amount of rereading. With reservations: Every time I reread a book, that’s one less new book I’ll read in my life. But I have finally made peace with the fact that I will not, during my lifetime, read every single book ever written. But yeah, I’m with Nabokov in that only through rereading can I come to a full artistic appreciation of a novel or story. And I do enjoy those… Read more »

    Wm HULTS

    Some 50 (?) years ago our square dance instructor (LA S CA) emphatically told us, “If it ain’t fun, don’t do it!”
    It has been working for me every since. Me thinks you can’t store-up fun. Special Regards, Wm

    David Duhr

    Sure. But how many people walked right off the dance floor when the instructor said that?

    One thing I’ve managed to do, for the most part, is quit reading a book if I’m not finding pleasure in it. I often used to force myself to continue, for whatever reason or another.

    One step at a time.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I am usually indifferent to the context in which I read a book. Where I sat, what I was listening to (I almost always prefer to listen to music while I read), whom I was with, little or none of that sticks or even matters. I do retain the contents of the book, particularly if it’s fiction. Nonfiction remains with me more or less, depending upon how my interest in the subject ebbs and flows. I’m fascinated by the rise and fall of empires, for example, but I generally don’t remember the associated dates. I’m not very empathetic. This shows… Read more »

    David Duhr

    You’ve reread Vanity Fair? Rereading long books is daunting to me. Daunting? Maybe I mean, I find it difficult to justify. For example, if I wanted to reread Vanity Fair I would beat myself up for not first reading, for the first time, Barry Lyndon or the Virginians, or any others of his. And yes, I see the folly in that.

    What are some of the books you’ve reread because they make you laugh? I think one of the most difficult things to do in writing is make a reader laugh.

    Jerry Schwartz

    Many of the books that made me laugh out loud are older ones, only because the books that come my way don’t seem to hit my funny bone. I would certainly cite “1066 and All That”; much of Piers Anthony’s stuff; anything by L. Sprague de Camp, Keith Laumer, Poul Anderson, and similar SciFi and Fantasy authors; short pieces by Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor. As I look at this list, I realize how long it’s been since I’ve read any humorous fiction. It’s time to put away those books on quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and history and find myself some… Read more »

    Emily K. Martin

    I, too, have a reading retention problem, and I feel surrounded by people who don’t which doesn’t feel all that great. But, I would rather read for experience over retention, if given a choice. I distinctly remember reading the Lord of the Rings for the second time in my life when I was living alone in an apartment and did not yet own “real” furniture, and I would turn on some beautiful Celtic music for the background and sit on a bean bag and get totally lost in Middle Earth. The memory still makes me smile. To help with my… Read more »

    David Duhr

    I love your Lord of the Rings memory. Reminds me of my Let the Great World Spin experience, a book I read when Justine and I had just moved into a terrible, bug-infested Florida apartment and were sleeping, for some reason, on a mattress on the floor. I find that I can often remember what I was reading during major life events.

    Let the Great World Spin is absolutely wonderful, by the way.

    What’s it about? Hell if I know.

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x