Reading has been something I've really wanted to do more of since I first began respecting well-read, informed-sounding people... which means I've not been reading as much as I felt I should be reading since my teens. Let's say this feeling has been with me for twenty years, give or take — that's a long time to carry around a monkey like this around. But even if I want to read more, any number of reasonable excuses for why I don't quickly come to mind. The most recent I used, when talking to a friend about why I hadn't finished a book she'd sent me, is one I've been telling myself since I can remember: I read slowly. Not only do I think I read slowly, but I tell myself I read slowly because I'm really trying to focus on the words and let them percolate before I can digest them wholly, where they can then be incorporated into my life. This would be a great excuse if it was even remotely true, but in reality I forget, and have forgotten, most everything I've ever read. We all have.
This isn't to say that everything I've ever read has failed to stick with me or affect me in some way. Reading simply doesn't work for me in reality as it does in that noble self-righteous intellectual narrative I'd written for myself. And in writing this story for myself about how heavy a cross to bear the act of reading is, I've created an illogical burden which tends to prevent me from actually picking up a book to read it in the first place. Neat, huh?
No matter how much I want to convince myself I'm savoring every last word of a self-help guide so its advice can be retrieved at a moment's notice from an easily accessible memory bank, "what we get from books is not just a collection of names, dates and events stored in our minds like files in a computer." And even if there is some hard drive in my brain, holding on to bits and pieces of this information, storage decay certainly steps in and does its part to help forget or warp just about everything that somehow might have been remembered in the first place.
So: "What use is it to read all these books if I remember so little from them?" In brief, is answer is that what we consume informs us despite us not knowing how or why. This isn't exclusive to reading, either, as I can't remember most of the movies I've watched, or the music I've listened to, yet it seems reasonable to think that a lot of it has left a serious imprint on me. How else was I shaped into the person I was other than by past experience?
There's this idea that I've seen others use, and have even experimented with myself, where you keep an ongoing record of the things you read, watch, or listen to — like a ledger. Maybe there's value in recording your media diet, but in reading more about why I can't remember the other things I just finished reading, the biggest takeaway for me has been a push toward the opposite. This isn't to undermine how cultural exploration helps serve as a defense against mental atrophy, which it certainly does, but instead of pushing forward on an amped up media conquest — telling myself that I'm missing out on something substantial until my laundry list of books to read, movies to watch, and music to listen to has been completed — I'm finding a renewed desire to return to the challenging, life-adding books, records, and movies that I've already experienced. And the big driver here is to help make sure I'm actually remembering them.
"I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books," writes Paul Graham on this subject. "I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time." This idea resonates deeply with me, especially when it comes to reading. The books that have influenced me the most continue to sit on my shelf, some once-read, as I try to find new books that are as impactful on me. They sit there because I have read them and now they have been read — full stop. Hell, I've read my "favorite" book only twice, and can't reference any of the lines from it that I'm not recalling from the film adaptation (which I've probably seen a dozen times or more!).
The other day I finished writing an article that features an email exchange which blew me away. I read the Q&A answers three times, edited the piece, and published it. And now, not even two weeks removed, what remains is a fuzzy feeling. Not specific references to words that invoked emotion in me, or any particular quotes from the source about ways to pivot my life in a manner that might lead to a more satisfying existence... Just a fuzzy feeling. Everything else: gone, somewhere.
In the end, this might be nothing more than me just telling myself it's OK to go slow. But it's OK to go fast, too. It's OK to speed things up and browse through books a first time before dedicating myself to a thorough read, just like it's OK to slow things down and read things that are "important" a third, fourth, and fifth time if they're truly and actually important. And if I'm wrong about all this? That's fine, too, because it won't take long before I forget I ever wrote any of it down in the first place.