How To Cure Reading Forgetfulness

Gabe Habash -- February 23rd, 2012

“To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.” – Philip Roth

I have a problem remembering books. It’s a problem that I mentioned in my chronicle of the 55 books I read in 2011, and when I think back to most of the books that I read last year, I come up with patches of the story (and, if I liked the book, usually patches of inner character workings), and a whole lot of fog.

Aside from putting an insidious terror in me, my memory’s failure made me consider how we pay attention and what we choose to pay attention to when we read. I’m not sure how much of a problem memory is for you out there, but it made me think, with my rickety brain, if tweaking a few reading variables might put a little grease in the old mental clockwork.

1. The time it takes to read a book. I read a book, on average, every 6.63 days last year, which, at first, sounds like an ideal amount of time to read a book, especially if you consider Roth’s two week window. But, as I mentioned in my earlier article, many times last year I was reading for numbers and treating the next book like the nearest hurdle I had to get over. This year, I’ve been reading without numbers in mind and though I’m not downing book after book in 2012, I’m remembering more of what I read and–here’s the important part–I’m enjoying more of what I read. The conclusion I’ve drawn here is that maybe it’s best not to have a future reading regimen mapped out but rather to progress and discover the next book more leisurely.

2. Reading more than one book at a time. How many of you do this? Because, to me, the concept was completely foreign until a few months ago. Now, I’m reading Infinite Jest, while also visiting The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson and Forty Stories by Chekhov every now and again.

(Not-so-quick aside: The whole idea for this post came to me because of Infinite Jest. One of the many things David Foster Wallace can do is concentrate. In point of fact, I think he can concentrate better than anyone else. Read one of his books, watch one of his interviews, and you see that every thought that comes into his head or every word that comes out of his mouth is so carefully considered, to the point that it’s hard not to concentrate like him. It almost feels like an insult to not give as much attention to Infinite Jest as he put into it. Which is why its taken me two months to read it. Which is why, despite breaking Roth’s rule, I can remember a ton of the book.)

I’m finding that having a short story collection as a literature sidearm is particularly useful. The other day, I read 20 pages in Infinite Jest, and then took a break by reading through three very short Chekhov shorts as a sort of palate cleanser. Having the nonfiction adventure account in The Ice Balloon provides an additional variety of narrative to keep my mind fresh. Maybe there’s something to this.

3. Keeping up with your “Favorite Lines” document. This one is my favorite. In 2008, I was reading Blood Meridian and I got to the long passage in chapter 11 in which the Judge tells a story about the harnessmaker welcoming a traveler into his home, seeming to repent and becoming a brother to his fellow men, and then killing that man out by the road and stealing his money. I opened a new Word document and copied out the whole little story. Since then, I have a never-ending document in which I retype passages and lines that I like whenever I come upon them. I underline in books I read, so I save the document for only the best of the best. A lot of lines from A Sport and a Pastime are in that document, as is the entirety of “The Symphony” chapter from Moby-Dick, that perfect self-contained piece of writing that is one of the very best things I’ve ever read.

I hope memory isn’t as much of a problem for you as it is for me. I always find it fun to talk with a friend about a book we’ve both read. My friends almost always end up telling me about massive chunks of the book I’ve forgotten. But whenever that happens, I just go home and start scrolling through that Word document. It’s a pretty comforting thought to know that I won’t ever be done adding to it.

10 thoughts on “How To Cure Reading Forgetfulness

  1. Jenny

    I love how two of the entries you (Gabe) wrote while reading Infinite Jest were inspired by the book. I’ve been reading it (on and off between other books, like you) this winter and am poised to finish within the next few days. The amount of concentration it takes–and deserves–is one element that I’ve tried to impress upon people who wonder “what’s taking so long?” There’s also the fact that it has remained in my psyche throughout that time. But no one else I know has made it through the beast, so I am incredibly heartened to find fellow book people who can relate! Thank you!

  2. Nicola

    Thanks for this, I can certainly relate. I’ve always had a dreadful memory for character names (not a great trait for a film critic!) and I’m not great with details of books long after I’ve read them. However I’m similar to you in that I like to pick up a short story when I’m having a reading drought, I try to finish a novel within a couple of weeks before I lose all sense of plot, and I’m fond of reading a novel and a non-fiction book in tandem. It’s good to know I’m not alone!

  3. Sasha Shearman

    Gabe, like you, I never considered reading more than one book at a time until recently. Now I am usually reading one fiction and one non-fiction book, usually with a spiritual or philosophical bent. Short stories are great palate fresheners, as is poetry.

    To remember books is a challenge, however sometimes it is a bonus to forget, because re-reading is doubly enjoyable!

  4. Mar Zum

    I’m a big believer in reading multiple books at the same time and having been doing so since I was a kid. I do find that 3 is my limit for being able to really keep track of stories well. If one or two of them are non-fiction, I can balance a few more.
    Instead of a Favorite Lines document, I made a tumblr for my favorites lines and passages. That way I can easily share them with other book-loving friends.

  5. threegoodrats

    I’m definitely guilty of the first one – not that I have a numerical goal, but I have a HUGE list of books I want to read and I’m always thinking forward to the next book. It’s frustrating to forget so much of what I read, and I rarely re-read anything because there’s so much that I haven’t read at all. I feel burdened by the fact that I’ll never read everything I want to read in my lifetime. At the same time, I’m making an extra effort these days not to rush through books, not to force myself to keep reading something I’m not enjoying in hopes that it will get better, and to let myself read more than one book at a time.

  6. Justin S

    Great topic for any determined reader… Taking notes and taking my time to read with deliberate curiosity have helped me immensely.

    PS I revisit The Symphony in Moby-Dick often… The book remains by my bedside indefinitely for that very reason. Incredible.

  7. Beth

    Telling someone else about a book I’ve read, and especially discussing it with someone else who has read it, helps me retain more.
    I always have several books going, and like the Favorite Lines idea, but it takes time and discipline!
    At the beginning of the year, I map out reading goals for the year, then have great fun deviating from those goals on a whim, when something unforeseen comes up…so I’m happy to make half my goals!

  8. Keiteag

    Why would you want to remember everything that you read? I’m a re-reader. Often I find a book is better the second (third, fourth) time around. Because I don’t remember everything, I’m free to enjoy the unfolding of the narrative again. And when I run across one of those Favorite Lines, I stop and savor.

    I do like the idea of a running list though. I guess I’ll just have to re-read some of my favorites again and start one.

  9. Robby H.

    This piece couldn’t have come at a better time.

    Literally an hour ago, I was browsing at the bookstore and of course had to buy something. As I was walking back to my office with the book, I thought about how much of it I would remember once it was read – supposing that it’s next in my reading queue and doesn’t end up among the countless, spine-uncracked others. I’ve always had trouble remembering the books along with a habit of reading multiple books at once. I’ll definitely have to try out these tips from now on – thank you!

  10. Andrea Dail

    Great musings here, Gabe. Infinite Jest is one of those books for me – I find I need to break it up every few chapters with another, lighter book. However I find that it doesn’t lessen the intensity, which I suppose says something good about my literary memory…?

    And I think I’ll be creating one of those Favorite Lines documents as soon as I get home…

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