In the New York Times Book Review, novelist James Collins admits an embarrassing secret.
I have just realized something terrible about myself: I don’t remember the books I read…
Nor do I think I am the only one with this problem. 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
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?
But then Collins does something very interesting. He calls up an expert on the science of reading named Maryanne Wolf, and asks her what she thinks about this quandary:
“There is a difference,” she said [to Collins], “between immediate recall of facts
and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the
specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith
Paul Raeburn, at the eminent Knight Science Journalism Tracker, responds with a complaint that Collins hasn't "done his reporting properly, even if this is a personal essay."
He has a point; the reader does want to know more about the building of "networks" in the brain Wolf refers to. which, translated into the vernacular, sounds as if she's saying — by reading that book, you have changed your mind.
But one can only admire Raeburn for finding a quote (from Tennyson, no less!) that describes the situation just as beautifully: I am part of all that I have met.
Yet and still, Wolf's reference to the "wraith of memory" corresponds quite exactly to what Collins recalls about the book in question — how he felt about it, and the experience of reading it.
And here's a possible measure of what it means to change your mind: What you can remember and retrieve is as good as what you have discovered or written yourself. As fully earned.
In the words of the late great (and too little missed) poet Joseph Brodsky:
Living is like quoting, and once you've learned something by heart, it's yours as much as the authors.
(from In Memory of Stephen Spender)