Forgetting What We Read

ant on peony

In a recent post for The New Yorker, Ian Crouch discusses an issue that has plagued me of late, The Curse of Reading and Forgetting, a curse which has been brought to my attention multiple times in the past few months.

First, a friend told me he was reading World War Z and, hearing I had read it a few years before, was saddened to learn that all I remembered from the book was a blind zombie hunter and a man who escaped his city apartment with nothing but a katana.

Next, a neighbour had to walk me through her reference to Franzen’s Freedom, even though I read it less than two years ago.

Now, I’m reading Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, a middle grade novel full of references to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  L’Engle’s series was one of my favourites as a child, yet it took me nearly 100 pages in Stead’s book to recognize that Wrinkle was the tale being referenced (it wasn’t mentioned by name until later).

Forgetting past knowledge is something most people come to accept over time, particularly after graduating from high school or university and realizing, a few years later, that although you may remember that force equals mass times acceleration, you no longer have any idea how to apply that concept, or that where you used to be able to conjugate numerous irregular French verbs, now when you try to say “I speak a little French” it comes out “I speak small French.”

Because I’ve always been a voracious reader, I know there are probably hundreds of books whose plots I’ve experienced and forgotten.  Even the memory of my favourite books, the few books I’ve read more than once, starts to feel slippery as time passes between readings.  I would say that writing about and discussing books deeply helps the memory to stay, but when I look back at the titles I read for my Literature degree, I still despair of remembering anything much about The Republic, even though I’m sure I read it three separate times.

Failure of memory may be part of the reason I’m so obsessed with underlining and writing marginalia.  If I own the book, I will be marking it up as I read it.  But don’t worry, these days I always use pencil.  I know I won’t have time to re-read all the books I’ve loved, not if I plan to find new stories as well, but going to my shelf and flipping through, I can quickly find reminders of why I loved them, quotes that encapsulate something of their feel, quotes that are quickly recognized and re-treasured.  The right word, the right phrase, to a reader is like the scent of lily-of-the-valley on the wind, bringing us back to our parent’s garden in early spring, ants crawling on the un-bloomed buds of the peonies.

Liz Gillett


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