Why I read books and forget them

Books I’ve read earlier this year

According to my Goodreads “books read” shelf I have read about two hundred and fifty books in my lifetime (or at least those are the ones tracked on Goodreads). This number does not include all the forgettable books I was required to read during high school and college; maybe we can round that number up to three hundred to be fair. Having a high number of read books is all well and good, but when it comes down to what I actually took away from these books? I can’t remember to save my life. Even those that are always listed when I’m asked that annoying question about my “favorite books”, what I do love about them is slowly slipping away, kind of like what happens when you have a dream and wake up trying to salvage the dreams’ remnants from your memory. Every book I read gets thrown into the same memory repository maybe two weeks after I finish it. All I get left with is my love for those books, in concept. What ended up mattering was that my Goodreads reading challenge target (ukh!) was looming close.

Surrounding myself with bookworms throughout my social media platforms (most of my real-life friends are not that big on reading, sadly), I realized that I’m not alone in suffering from the curse of books read-but-forgotten. A lot of readers, it turns out, tend to forget what they read even after basically having our lives temporarily arranged around a single book (ehm, A Little Life). This is why I have decided to try and figure out why this happens and how to essentially, for a lack of a better term, read better. To my surprise, I found so much material on this very subject, what a great place the internet is! When I found William Cho’s post I was psyched, because yay I’m not the only sucky reader, this is an actual phenomenon! Apparently, a lot of people are forgetting what they read, just like me. Patti Smith discusses the same happening with her in her book M Train:

“I had read Camus’s The First Man some time ago but was so completely immersed that I retained nothing. This has been a intermittent lifelong enigma. Through early adolescence I sat and read for hours … I would enter a book wholeheartedly and sometimes venture so deeply it was as if I was living within it. I finished many books in such a manner there, closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content by the time I returned home. This disturbed me but I kept this strange affliction to myself. I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember.”

Why do we read?

I’m not going to throw at you those cliché headlines of “successful businessmen read fifty books a year” crap, don’t worry. I want to really get down to the reason why I feel compelled to pick up that Fernando Pessoa on my nightstand at 3 AM when I’m feeling frustrated with how my day went. Why I sometimes find myself remembering Leaves of Grass at random times like on a boat in the middle of the Red Sea. Why I really wish I was best friends with Anais Nin so I can give her a different perspective on dating Otto. I don’t read for self-development seeking betterment for my life (there’s nothing wrong with that! That type of thing is a lot of people’s cup of tea). I read because, cheesy as it will sound, literature is soul food. Encountering thoughts that reverberate with your own is magic. Creating an entirely non-existent world within your mind is magic. Reading is magic, period.

There are a lot of reasons we read, though. I’m going to boil down the answers I’ve found into five main points which include my own:

· To learn something new or of interest

· To read a good story

· To encounter well-articulated thoughts that resound, challenge, or enhance our own (this is probably my biggest one)

· To momentarily escape the madness (or tedium) of our busy lives

· To stay informed about news and important stories

And many many others. We all have our reasons for reading but bottom-line is: reading is awesome.

Why do we forget what we read?

Once I realized I’m having trouble remembering what I read I tried to identify what’s causing me to not focus during reading. I’ve been placing a reading target for myself on Goodreads for the past few years, usually with my target ranging from a mild twenty to an unattainable, but I’d want to push myself, fifty. Once the target was placed, I wasn’t reading for enjoyment, at least not entirely. I was reading towards a target. Aside from speed-reading from cover to cover, it started becoming a chore after around fifteen books. After finishing a book that I had thoroughly enjoyed, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what the book was about. Which honestly wouldn’t matter at the time because what mattered was upping that books-read percentage. I found myself reading twenty books and not remembering a word. And these would include books that I was looking forward to reading for a long time.

And this is why I’ve decided to stop joining the yearly reading challenge. I mean what’s the point of having read even one hundred books without remembering a single one? When did reading become another competitive sport that we need to outdo ourselves and others in? This ends now!

One thing that has made me super uncomfortable coming to terms with is that my attention span has become so short I cannot focus on one activity for more than, I don’t know, ten seconds. For example, this post right here was written across maybe twenty sessions because every time I decide I’m going to finish it I find myself flipping between Instagram, YouTube, Facebook (which I don’t even like quite honestly), and of course entertaining my baby (which is an actual excuse unlike the rest). It’s become a detrimental side effect of social media to not be able to focus on one task at a time, I guess, and it’s annoying! It affects work, real social time, reading, even cooking.

When I sit down to read, my phone sits seductively on the table beckoning me with its Instagram posts, Pinterest boards, and all kinds of useless junk. Then we all know what happens, I give in to the temptation (which worsens the longer I don’t checked my phone), and put my book down for a few mind-numbing hours. AND I HATE MYSELF AFTERWARDS! These things have essentially become porn for your brain: it just wants to be stimulated with no effort on your part whatsoever. All you need is a stable internet connection and a bunch of meme accounts and you’re gone for hours. I won’t harp too much on the “negative effects of social media” because I love it. We all love it. It’s endless entertainment, really. I have my bookstagram account, I have my friends sending memes, it’s great! My only problem is compartmentalization! Everything needs to have its own time-slot. So that’s what I’m going to start doing. Reading time won’t be intruded upon by my phone. Case closed.

My next order of business is speed reading which really defies the purpose of reading at all, honestly. I mean, when I find an article that interests me I find myself racing through it like someone has a gun to my head demanding I finish the article in under a minute. I’ve come to realize, though, that fast reading that has become so glamorized all of a sudden, it’s the bane of reading! You have all these books on how to read faster which is no surprise because it is totally in line with the millennial mentality of accelerating everything. Doing things faster, more efficiently, with little to no effort has spilled into the only activity that demands the one thing we can’t seem to spare anymore, TIME.

How to start reading better

So I’ve kind of tested a few things to help me retain more of what I read. The most effective one being taking my time. Rather than speed through, I’ve started absorbing every sentence I read. When I give the reading material more time, I’m much more likely to remember it afterwards, it turns out. I changed my goal from finishing the book to savoring what the book is trying to say. This approach has made me more adamant on abandoning any book that does not engage me (very thin patience when you’re a mother to a six-month-old). Other than that, I boiled the list of how to read better down to the following pointers:

· Reading time is no phone time, for real, I’m pretty sure I won’t regret not seeing that Insta story of a burger

· No more “reading challenges” that truly defy the purpose of why I read (I will keep my Goodreads account to track my read versus to-be-read books, that’s why I made a Goodreads account in the first place, therefore I will honor that purpose!)

· I will take my sweet time with a book, even if it takes weeks, who’s keeping track?!

· When I find myself flicking through Instagram stories during a perfectly read-able hour I shall put down my phone and grab my book (this will be the hardest one to do)

· I will take more notes on books to stop getting lost when I need to refer back to something

Being a person to whom reading is an essential life-juice, it’s a shame that most of the books I read become forgotten a measly couple of weeks after finishing them. How can I call myself a reader in good conscience when I retain zero of what I read? When you think about it, reading is one of the few things left that slow down time and give us respite from the craziness of a busy day (or life). It’s one of the few things that demand our full attention and not intermittent perusing.

Mother. Nutritionist. Bookworm. Third culture kid.

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