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On reading and memory: is it possible to read too much?

reading and memory On reading and memory: is it possible to read too much?

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People who read that much must only be skimming, said a comment on a forum thread about voracious readers.

Not true, was my immediate response: I never skim-read, seeing it an entirely pointless exercise. If a book is only worth skimming, then why read it at all? I have plenty to read, and unless the Methuselah Foundation gets its act in gear and organises immortality for the masses, a finite number of years in which to fit it all in.

But every now and then, Ill sit down to write a review and think, wait, what was the name of the main character again? Actually, thats a fairly frequent occurrence. Names always escape me. But even so, is it possibly an indicator that theres something not quite right about my reading? Perhaps, could it be, am I reading too much?

Some books I remember as though theyre in Technicolor, and I could sit down over coffee and discuss them for hours. Including the names of the minor characters. Others, however, are little more than a hazy elevator pitch memory or a flash of a book cover in my memory.

Years ago, in high school, I read Justina Robsons debut Silver Screen, which features a protagonist (Anjuli OConneland no, I didnt even need to google that) who has a photographic memory. In one scene, Anjuli talks about the fact that the human brain can store a few gigabytes worth of memory, which is a limit shes bound to be approaching given her own perfect retention.

Today were overwhelmed with information, and we deal with it by outsourcing it. My phone memorises telephone numbers for me. My calendar tells me where I need to be and when. Google is there for when I need an address, and Facebook, when I bother to log in, tells me which birthdays are coming up. And, it would seem, this website is where I store my memories of what Ive been reading.

Because, honestly, unless a book has truly, utterly resonated with me, its going to sit somewhere at the back of memory as a hazy little smudge until it gets called up for comparison when I read something similar or relevant. When that memory is jogged, Ill typically go back and search through my reviews until I find the book in question. (Oh! Thats what I thought about that book! Look at all those words!) There are a handful of books, though, that are jostling for front row position, and theyre quite welcome to sit there in their fully fleshed-out glory.

The thing is, my reading habits have changed since starting this site. Not only do I have a place to store my thoughts about books (which is why I tend to write thematic reviews rather than just critiques), which has changed how I read, but Ive also begun to read far more. This is perhaps because I dont need to hold the memory of a book in the precious, limited space of my mind any more, and also probably partly because of things like the fact that Im not drowning under uni reading any longer, and I also have access to books on my omnipresent phone.

So the volume of material that Ive read has escalated to a slightly ridiculous level. However, although the 400 or so books Ive read since starting this site about two and a half years ago are logged on here for future reference, the ones read before that arent. And with  all these new books clamouring for space inside my memory, well, some of those old ones are going to get pushed out.

It was when I went along to the screening of Dead Europe last week that I began realising how much of a problem this is, and whether it is actually possible to read too much. You see, although in my uni days Id read the book the film is based on, I only have the barest memory of it. When my friend attempted to engage me in all sorts of erudite discussion about it, I failed to dredge up much more than a messy tableau of photography, sex, ghosts, and people in a pit.

Thoughtful stuff, Im sure youll agree.

So although perhaps its simply that the book didnt especially resonate with me, I suspect the problem is more one of volume. By reading so much, am I wiping out my memories of earlier books? If so, I suppose there are two issues here. First, is this a bad thing, really, or should I just let the cerebral meritocracy of my brain wipe away my memories of mediocre books and focus on the good ones? (the problem here is that I have a very good memory of Sweet Valley High, and a middling one of Crime and Punishment.)

Second, how do I go about dealing with the memory overwriting going on here? Should I slow down my reading and focus instead on reading less, but reading only books that are more valuable (which raises the problem of how its possible to tell that something is of value without reading it)? Should I re-read the books that are slowly making their egress from my mind and note down my thoughts about them for later?

Or perhaps I should just accept all of this as part and parcel of having a human memory, and that although I dont remember all of the details of all of the books Ive read, those cumulative reading experiences offer something of their own: they influence every subsequent reading experience.

What do you think? Are you a voracious reader who struggles to remember the name of that guy in that book by that author? How do you deal with this problem of memory?


  1. I am a voracious reader and I always forget names of characters WHILE I read a book, even (I mean, when I have put the book away to do something else).

    I think this is because names arent generally important. Just like you may not remember exactly what you had for diner last week, because it doesnt matter. But that your friend from far, far, away suddenly showed up at your doorstep, thats something you dont forget for a long time.

    So, I think its to do with how big is the impression that something makes on you, how long you will remember it. I dont think memories overwrite each other but they may fade after a while. Only the really important/special/salient information will be kept alive. (I studied Experimental Psychology and that includes some memory courses).

    • Stephanie /

      Im glad Im not the only one, Judith! I have a very odd memory: I can often recall very obscure or trivial things, but names arent among them! Youre right that theyre not especially important in the scheme of things. Its sort of like focusing on memorising dates in history class rather than on higher-order thinking that involves analysis and synthesis.

      Thanks for your thoughts on recall and how it may fade over timeits great to have someone knowledgeable in the area weigh in. :)

    • Stephanie /

      Judith, I just came across this link and thought that you might find it interesting in light of this conversation: maybe Im on to something with my idea of our brains turning to dust!

  2. Im terrible at remembering names in books, especially if theyre unusual. Half the time I dont even pronounce them properly in my head — leading to some hilarity when trying to discuss the books. Mind you, I am terrible at names in real life too, so thats probably related.

    I dont really think its possible to cram too much information into ones brain. Maybe too much in one go, but Im not sure that is really applicable to reading.

    • Stephanie /

      Im probably more likely to remember a name if it is unusualI get completely lost when dealing with similar names, though. :)

      It does seem like our brains do a pretty good job of archiving the unimportant stuff and keeping the valuable stuff up front on the featured shelves, but I did have a bit of a chuckle at the thought of my brain flashing up a memory warning like my computer! Good point about the possibility of it being more a case of too much in one goperhaps the way we read these days is a bit like cramming for exams!

      • Cramming for exams was always my style. Hmm. Now Im trying to decide if I remember more books or more undergrad examinable content ;-)

        • Stephanie /

          Well, given that I have an Honours degree in Russian but can barely remember how to write my own name ;)

  3. I would very happily read only books that resonate with me, if only I could work out a system for differentiating the ones that will resonate with the ones that wont. To the memory point I read carefully and have a pretty good memory, but when a books not thrilling me, I think I just dont expend as much effort remembering everyones names. Its okay, I think! It doesnt mean youre reading uncarefully or ungenerously; it just means that when something doesnt make emotional connections with you, youre less likely to retain memories of it.

    • Stephanie /

      I know exactly what you mean, Jenny: I think whoever manages to figure out how to perfectly match a reader with the books that will resonate with them will be up for a Nobel! At the moment its still so much a case of guesswork. I listen to a music website called Pandora, which aims to provide listeners with songs theyll love based on songs theyve previously given the thumbs up or down, but honestly, its hit and miss at best! Taste is such a subjective, personal thing. :)

      I think youve hit on an excellent point about a book making an emotional connection. Different books will connect with different readers at different times depending on a whole range of factors, and theres not necessarily a formula for knowing what will or wont work. Ive read some classics that have left me utterly cold, and some trashy stuff that has really resonated with me for some reasonperhaps a character reminds me of someone I know etc. Ive also read books that have done absolutely nothing for me the first time around, but that Ive grown to love after subsequent reads. Our state of mind at the time of reading probably does have a lot to do with what we give to our reading of a particular book. :)

  4. Interesting post! Just the other day, I couldnt for the life of me remember whether I had read Gone Girl or listened to the audio. (I had both from the library at some point.) I couldnt believe I could forget something as basic as that. (Although it may be evidence that the brain doesnt process reading a book in print and listening to an audiobook all that differently.)
    Im not good at remembering names in real life or with books. Unless its a character in a long-running series or part of the title of the book, I usually have to look up character names even shortly after reading. I have a bad memory in general, so my hazy memory of books Ive read matches up with memories of my own life. I guess going by Leeswammes comment, that means my own life hasnt made a big impression on me! If you havent read Ruined by Reading by Lynne Sharon Schwartz for more thoughts on reading and life, you might like it. I agree with everything she wrote in it, although I dont remember the details! ;)

    • I think Im ruined by reading! It sounds like a book I should read!

    • Stephanie /

      How interesting, Laurie. I tend to read in print and audio very differentlyan audio experience is immensely different from a personal reading for me, as theres an additional interpretation going on between reader and writer (that of the narrator). (Maybe Ill write a post on this!) Im not sure whether it affects my memory of a book, although I do have to admit that I have a tendency to tune out when listening to an audiobook, and am less likely to play catchup than when Im reading myself.

      Its funnyI tend to have a pretty good memory (although it depends on what it is Im remembering), but so often Ill be relating something to my husband, and hell be like, no, thats not what happened. So strange that we can be adamant that something happened one way, when perhaps it was entirely different. Im always nervous about eye-witness accounts and testimonies as a result!

      Thanks so much for the book recommendation, as well. I remember (ha!) seeing that book around, and will definitely pick up a copy. :)

  5. What an interesting post Stephanie. I have a pretty good memory and I *think* I could discuss the bare bones of almost all of the books I have read no matter how long ago. I certainly recognise when I have read a book before by reading the blurb or a few pages, though I admit I have been tripped up once or twice by a repackaged book.
    Still I am sure a lot of details are lost to me like names and dates and sometimes I need a prompt to recall more than an general impression. I do think the books I remember most clearly are the ones that have emotional significance attached. So like you I probably remember more about the Wakefield twins than Crime and Punishment.
    You might be interested to know that studies show reading actually improves memory and icreases the capacity of your brain to store memories.

    • Stephanie /

      Im impressed, Shelleyrae! I tend to get pretty hazy on books unless Ive read them recently or they really resonated with me. Although interestingly I seem to recall the ones from my childhood pretty well, and I was a *huge* reader then. Perhaps kids famously sponge-like brains work for remembering books as well as all the other stuff they learn!

      Goodness, well, if reading is meant to improve memory, I can only imagine how bad mine would be if I didnt read! :)

  6. I used to remember much more about the books I read too, but then I re-read my books over and over again, and also they were more deeply scored into my memory because at the age of 8 I had read many less thousands of books than I have read now. I still pride myself on remembering more than most people do though even though I read very fast I read with intense concentration :)

    • Me too Kate. People generally assume I read to fast and Cant possibly take in as much as a slower reader but that is not true at all.

      • Stephanie /

        I think people can definitely train themselves to become very good readers who take in large amounts of information despite reading quickly. My husband can skim-read and still take away quite a bit of information, whereas Im actually a fairly slow reader, and often need to re-read sections as well.

    • Stephanie /

      Great points, Kate. I do wonder if the books that we read as kids are remembered so well partly because of kids famously sponge-like brains, and perhaps because we were reading with a different purpose in mindand with that full attention that kids are so able to give things. I envy you your intense concentration, as Im a terrible multi-tasker and find it difficult to keep my mind on any one thing at a time!

  7. Im terrible at remembering books these days. Sometimes a few weeks pass before I have the chance to write a review for a book Ive read, and I find Ive forgotten a lot of it. Im even worse with the books I read before I started the blog I can barely remember what I read at all. Now at least I remember the titles and Im more aware of authors back catalogues and so on.
    I dont know what the solution is. Maybe it is just a part of being human.

    • Stephanie /

      I have the same problem, Belle. Once I get a couple of books behind in my reviews Im in big trouble! Im playing catch-up at the moment, and Im a bit nervous!

      Having a record of the books is really helpful, I find: even being able to see the book cover helps jog my memory of a book, and a full review is wonderful!

  8. Found this post from @readinasitting really interesting: On reading and memory: is it possible to read too much?

  9. Youre not the only one with book memory issues Stephanie!

    If i leave writing a review for even just a week I can already forget the names and what happened in the book! Especially so for books i really loved, because often those are the books that have evoked me emotionally and sometimes i just remember how i felt about the book and not so much the content. As opposed to those i didnt particularly enjoy- those are the ones i can remember because i have taken note of the technical details of what i didnt like.

    I too have had those very proud moments when you absolutely cant think of what to say about a book and then look back on your review and realise, wow i had a lot to say about that!

    • Stephanie /

      Im glad to hear that Im not the only one, Lauren! Thanks for raising the point about how the emotional resonance of a book can be longer-lasting than the actual details of the bookits a really interesting idea.

      I definitely have quite strong memories about books that I simply loathed for whatever reason, so I understand exactly where youre coming from there. Its interesting how often the less positive memories can outweigh the positive ones, like how easy it is to look back on, say, your childhood and think of the bad or embarrassing things that happened rather than all the average or great stuff. Perhaps its a protective mechanism? (Im sure Freud would have something to say about that!)

  10. So its not just me! I struggle to remember book details, I have to admit, though some of my favorites are crystal clear. Perhaps thats because Ive read some of them several times. Nowadays its much harder for a book to get to the place in my brain which stores copious amounts of detail. I read more than ever but I make no effort to remember details of books that are average or below average.

    • Stephanie /

      Re-reading certainly helps me better visualise, and no doubt memorise, things as well: theres definitely something in repetition that helps cement a memory as being worthwhile for retaining in long-term memory. Although I do read average books as thoroughly as I would a very good book, I dont tend to think about them afterwards in the same way or to the same degree, which probably is what affects my memory retention in these cases. :)

      • Thats true, Stephanie. In fact, some are forgotten as soon as I turn or click the last page. I always live in hope of reading something memorable, though.

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