Reading about reading

I have just realized something terrible about myself: I don’t remember the books I read. I chose “Perjury” as an example at random, and its neighbors on my bookshelf, Michael Chabon’s “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (on the right) and Anka Muhlstein’s “Taste for Freedom: The Life of Astolphe de Custine” (on the left), could have served just as well. These are books I loved, but as with “Perjury,” all I associate with them is an atmosphere and a stray image or two, like memories of trips I took as a child….

But this cannot be. Those books must have reshaped my brain in ways that affect how I think, and they must have left deposits of information with some sort of property — a kind of mental radiation — that continues to affect me even if I can’t detect it. Mustn’t they have?

James Collins, N.Y. Times Book Review.

Excellent read on reading. I discovered this phenomenon relatively recently. For most of my life I only read fiction for leisure, so when I began reading non-fiction I assumed I’d be picking up and retaining all the new information I encountered and priming myself to dominate Jeopardy!, unleashing my inner Ken Jennings.

But I found out that, as Collins writes, it doesn’t quite work like that for me; I enjoyed good non-fiction books like I enjoy good novels, but I remember only snippets and factoids and overarching ideas, not every single detail.

The conclusion of this essay, though — the one Collins touches on in the second paragraphs excerpted above — is a rather redeeming one I came to when struggling with how I spent so much time and money in grad school on a master’s degree that prepared me for no particular trade. I realized that all the reading, writing and critical thinking impacted the way I approached just about everything, and made me feel smarter, like I was using new and previously untapped parts of my brain.

And that’s similar to what Collins — with the help of a neuroscientist — comes to in the linked essay. Even if you don’t remember every detail of what you read, just having read it and considered it likely enriched you mentally.

It’s a comforting conclusion, I think. Reading is good.

2 thoughts on “Reading about reading

  1. I really liked this analogy drawn by Collins:

    “You may remember the specifics of only a few conversations with your best friend, but you would never ask if talking to him or her was a waste of time.”

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