Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Catch and Release?

I recently asked a friend about the [admittedly strange] movie “12 Monkeys” and she replied telling me that though she remembers the movie being interesting, she couldn’t remember a whole lot about it. She confessed to the same experience with books.

It usually takes three encounters with a story for me to create a long term memory of it. That makes mystery novels more reusable, but isn’t otherwise a useful quirk.

It thrilled me to hear her say this. When others sit around discussing the meaning and impact of a book or movie, more often than not I’m simply happy to recall a character or two, much less the plot and attending symbolism. I find that I am left with impressions of books and movies, and perhaps a remembrance of the experience of reading it, but am quick to forget the actual contents.

She and I are not unintelligent. We just don’t remember what we read. So why read?

That’s the question addressed in an encouraging NY Times piece from a few years ago.

Certainly, there are those who can read a book once and retain everything that was in it, but anecdotal evidence suggests that is not the case with most people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents.

So we in the forgetful majority must, I think, confront the following question: Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?

The author, James Collins, himself a novelist, concludes that the experience of reading is a part of the answer, but he is also persuaded, and suggests there is evidence to back up his claim, that we are changed in some way by the books we read even when we can’t retain the contents.

It’s an interesting, and hopeful, thought. It’s good to know that I’m not completely wasting my time. But I’m just glad to find that I’ve got company. Good company. Perhaps a vast company.

Elsa, we are not alone.

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4 Comments

  1. Adri

    Hear, hear. Or is it here, here? I’m never quite sure. But I’d like to join this select group – if I may. I usually know I’ve read the book – same goes for seeing a movie – but many details/the meaning escape me. Sometimes a particular passage, one I’d rather forget, sticks in my mind.

  2. keith

    I have the same problem. Too bad that won’t give me a pass for my ordination Bible exams. : )

    • I guess showing them an article in the NYTimes Review of Books defending your disability won’t carry much weight with these guys? Wow – that’s harsh!

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