You are what you read
October 2, 2013 6:48 PM   Subscribe

For the most part we also forget what we eat, but it still nourishes us.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:57 PM on October 2, 2013 [67 favorites]

Seriously though, this is why you reread good books. You read the best ones annually until you know the story so well you no longer need to read it. I've read Blood Meridian 12+ times. I've read most of the Brust Vlad books dozens of times (not the same thing, but eh). I have a specific shelf for the best books.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:59 PM on October 2, 2013 [17 favorites]

We obviously have several people who think it's a waste to RTFA when they can comment without doing so.

We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory.

What a lovely turn of phrase, I'm not familiar with it.
posted by smoke at 7:03 PM on October 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

Who is this "we"?
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 7:04 PM on October 2, 2013

"Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable."
— Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium
posted by oulipian at 7:06 PM on October 2, 2013 [21 favorites]

If there were some way to know ahead of time exactly what would stay with us, then we could concentrate on just that.

But there isn't. So we read a lot and retain some.

Also, the act of reading is enjoyable and worthwhile in its own right, even if it doesn't stay with us.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:14 PM on October 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

The key is to read so much that you're always ahead of the game, no matter how much you forget.
posted by empath at 7:22 PM on October 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

It's kind of like, why do I bother eating? Most of it is just going to end up in the toilet later.
posted by empath at 7:23 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Heh. So many times I've had a similar thought: "Ugh! I'm tired of eating. I'm just gonna get hungry again. It's getting old."
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 7:25 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

We obviously have several people who think it's a waste to RTFA when they can comment without doing so.

Well, to be fair, the post was composed with a leading question that while addressed in TFA, isn't really the thrust of it - the article doesn't question why we read, but the notion of what we might retain from the experience, if not facts.
posted by crossoverman at 7:26 PM on October 2, 2013

Good news to me. I thought I barely remembered anything of the books I read because I'm a habitual speed-reader, and I've always felt a bit guilty about that since I buy all the books I read.
posted by peripathetic at 7:31 PM on October 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

This reminds me of the cruelly specific quizzes at the end of Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. He expected his students at Cornell to remember the wallpaper's pattern in such-and-such a character's bedroom. The novel to which this character belonged was In Search of Lost Time.

Some samples:

"Follow Mr. Guppy through Bleak House."

"John Jarndyce's Bleak House: list a few specific details."

"The features of Fanny Price and Esther are pleasantly blurred. Not so with Emma. Describe her eyes, hair, hands, skin."

"Did [Emma] like her mountain lakes with or without a lone skiff?"
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:31 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

“It’s there,” Wolf said. “You are the sum of it all.”

I sincerely believe that 10% of my knowledge was derived from "school" and the other 90% from books I read. It really isn't about remembering plot lines or stories, it's about being immersed in other worlds/times/places/languages/cultures and seeping in them for a while, and taking the gestalt of that experience into the next place in your life.

And, it's about escaping to the other... One of my fondest memories is of riding my bike to the library a mile away from my house, finding a newly acquired science fiction book, or James A. Michener novel, taking it home, climbing the tree in the back yard and spending an afternoon elsewhere, and incorporating those hours into who I would become.
posted by HuronBob at 7:33 PM on October 2, 2013 [21 favorites]

I've been mulling over this same issue myself, recently, although the unfortunate conclusions haven't resulted in any noticeable changes in my reading behavior.
posted by hwestiii at 7:34 PM on October 2, 2013

"People never read. But if they do read, they don't understand. And if they do understand, they forget."
-Stanislav Lem
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:35 PM on October 2, 2013 [11 favorites]

If forgetting great books is the price I pay for being able to forget my own life, so be it. People need to die, people need to forget.
posted by GuyZero at 7:35 PM on October 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

What GuyZero said, only from the perspective of someone blessed/cursed with unusual memoriousness (a tip of the hat to Borges). It is lovely to remember wonderful things you have read; it is horrid to remember despicable things you have done, thoughtless things you have said, opportunities you have lost.

Sometimes I just get down on the floor like Harriet and roll around and around pretending to be an onion. For everything else, there's Xanax.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:42 PM on October 2, 2013 [25 favorites]

I also wonder if Professor Wolf was quoting Tennyson's Ulysses or if that was just a coincidence? And now I have Tennyson earworm.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:44 PM on October 2, 2013

The trick is to only read books about how to improve your memory.
posted by oulipian at 7:47 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is why I mostly read technical things with facts that are useful to me at some later point. The strong exception to this is the 1632 series of books by Eric Flint, which has given me a much wider range of knowledge about infrastructure than I would have ever otherwise had.
posted by MikeWarot at 7:54 PM on October 2, 2013

For the first time ever i am proud of not reading the link or any oft he comments or eveb this comment as i type i t here are some more words 2653ydshds 8 wuwd weu8ey 7wey ewdy7wy ed7y hehehehehe i win
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:55 PM on October 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

Some reviews of my favorite books based solely on memory:
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore: there’s a girl named Agnes who pronounces her name An-yez, like the French, and there’s a really funny line about modern dance. At some point some raccoons burn up in a chimney.

posted by purpleclover at 7:57 PM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is a theory I've had about artistic projects you start but don't finish, but I can see it applying to books you read and then forget as well:

Okay, you know how in a forest, when a tree falls, you get a hundred seedlings suddenly popping up where there's now suddenly a patch of sun, but only one seedling actually survives to grow up into a full-blown tree?

Well, all those other seedlings don't go to waste. Instead, they become the leaf litter on the forest floor, mixing with the dead tree as it decays and turning into the fertilizer for the soil. Take the leaf litter out of the forest and it dies - and the seedlings-that-never-become-trees are a big part of the leaf litter.

So the books you read, but don't remember, are still there - they're the leaf litter that fertilizes the things that you do remember and the thoughts you have later on.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:00 PM on October 2, 2013 [37 favorites]

That was Gremlins and it was the dad and he didn't burn. The rest is how I remember it though.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:00 PM on October 2, 2013

Alberto Manguel has a chapter in his book A History of Reading that addresses the same topic and comes to the same general conclusion, but more eloquently. Of course I can't remember the details...but it did reassure me similarly.
posted by blue shadows at 8:01 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I used to be a voracious reader but it has really dropped off since I hit my mid-30s. It's not because I'm done, but it's because I read widely enough to have discovered my "core" books, ones that will always provide me with delight and instruction, no matter how many times I read them.

I could read Voltaire and Bierce and Maupassant and Johnson non-stop for the rest of my life, again and again, and would still consider myself as well-read and versed in literature as anybody who was picking up This Week's Hot Prizewinner every time one was released.

I have about 150 books left to my name, down from over a thousand. It's a single small bookshelf, and even recently I pruned another dozen or so from it.

The Sony eReader has been great for me because I no longer have to artificially "respect" or force myself to read something. It isn't a physical thing and I can't chart my progress by how fast my "to read" pile is shrinking, and I can carry more than one book around with me at all times. I'm sorry to say that if I get bored with something or if it gives me the shits for longer than a half-paragraph these days, or I think it's too flowery, or trying too hard, or is saying nothing, I ditch it immediately and move on to the next thing, without having to budge. I don't feel guilty about it any more, or stupid because maybe it's over my head, I simply recognise that it is bullshit and no longer have the energy or desire to waste my time on it.

Ego is another problem, with book-lovers. No matter what they tell others or themselves, hardcore readers, deep down, are a lot of the time wrestling with ego. "Look how many books I've read this month, aren't I smart?" "Aren't I so eclectic, this is a book about riding a goat from one end of Yemen to the other!" "This book is extremely thick and if women see me reading it, they will want to sleep with me."

Let your reading ego go. Banish reading guilt.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:02 PM on October 2, 2013 [19 favorites]

“It’s there,” Wolf said. “You are the sum of it all.”

This awareness, I think, is what separates, in my head (and probably nowhere else), the culture of "readers" from "non-readers". Sure, everyone reads to some extent and that's great and literacy-for-pleasure shouldn't be used as a class/intelligence marker as much as it is. But somewhere in the back of my snobby mind, I still classify the world into two types: people who say, "Oh yeah, those books were fun!" and people who, in the privacy and presence of other readers, will say, "That book changed my life."

Because books do. Even if I'm not consciously aware of it. Sometimes I joke that all my sought-after experiences have started, somewhere, with books, with characters I wanted to emulate or experiences I read about and wanted to have for myself. I became excited about school (Harry Potter when I was nine, ahem), I took up certain sports (fencing, horseback riding), I developed certain aspects of my career or followed certain pursuits (Jaida Jones' Havemercy is entirely responsible for my initial interest in firefighting, for instance.) I'm considered a responsible adult by many (!!!) and I still use favorite characters as cargo cults of personality: I will pull whomever is called for out of the pages and do my best impression as needed. Phrases in books have been catalysts for action in deeply painful personal situations, and favorite books bring comfort in the worst or most challenging times. Thanks to Beryl Markham and Code Name Verity, I was investigating the feasibility of flying lessons just this evening.

I don't even know what I'm trying to say, except that I am, at any given time, at least 50%, and maybe more, due to the influence of books.

You know, I think, the joy of getting into a strange country in a book: at home when I have shut my door and the town is in bed - and I know that nothing, not even the dawn - can disturb me in my curtains... If you can get the right book at the right time you taste joys - not only bodily, physical, but spiritual also, which pass out and beyond one’s miserable self, as it were through a huge air, following the light of another man’s thought. And you can never be quite the old self again. - T.E. Lawrence
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:03 PM on October 2, 2013 [12 favorites]

Ugh, NYTimes doesn't want to let me read without a login, so I guess I'll answer the simple question: we read because it is pleasurable, not for the sake of retaining it all. Some large amount of reading is specifically about the moments of reading itself, not what you remember later. If the reading is pleasurable or important enough, you go back several times until a large chunk of it sticks.

Which is why it's nice to pick up a book you haven't read in a while and rediscover it. You remember bits, but have forgotten more, and so you get the pleasure of it all over again. Or at least I do. (Music and movies are the same).

The bit on Seinfeld where Jerry is incredulous that anyone re-reads anything....I've met those people. The pleasure they are getting (and it seems like a thin kind of pleasure) of just finding out what happened, is not what I'm getting out of a book I enjoy. Which is why I don't mind forgetting some of it, or not getting it all on first read.
posted by emjaybee at 8:07 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm having a kind of sad feeling reading this thread. It might just be feeding into my 45 year old reflection on half a life lived, but I can't honestly say whether all the reading I have done has been helpful or a waste of time. And then along some the line: "You are the sum of it."

That is somehow simultaneously reassuring and entirely non-illuminating. And true.
posted by salishsea at 8:21 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I read so much many of the neighbors in my building refer to me as some variation of "The Book Dude." Family rumors has it I taught myself to read at 2 (I don't remember. I've slept since then.).

For one thing, I will guaranteed read every book (that is not COMPLETE crap) twice. The first time I call "the plot run", where I absorb the sweep of the plot and enjoy high pageturnability. The second is my "detail run", where I reread the book and actually look deeply at the actual writing, plot holes and such. And I like it that way. I even have a system of multiple dogearing (sacrilege I know, but it is SO portable) to track not only where I finished last, but things I want to look up, questionable writing and such.

Mkay, I should confess. I am a reading addict who has at least one friend who refers to him as "Research Boy." I suspect my addiction is due to domestic unrest in my youth, where I would dive into a book as an escape from parental arguments.

I am also terribly skilled at biblionavigation, that blessed skill that means I don't have to put my book/netbook down whilst walking, despite the attempts of some people to trip me up.
posted by Samizdata at 8:22 PM on October 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

I know that I usually remember way more than I presume at first. If I were to try to write down what I can recall, I would always have to go back and add some part which Just came to mind.

Plus, I still can't fabricate memories, so while I may not exactly remember why a certain book is beautiful, I have to read it to remember having read a beautiful book, which is a very pleasant memory to have.
posted by lbebber at 8:23 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am also terribly skilled at biblionavigation, that blessed skill that means I don't have to put my book/netbook down whilst walking, despite the attempts of some people to trip me up.

Yes! I am not the only one! I maintain that I developed this skill as a way to prevent boredom on dreadful long drawn-out argumentative shopping trips at bulk grocery stores with my parents between the ages of 5 - 16. I have had people literally beg me not to read walking to school before because they were afraid for my safety on sidwalks full of bikes and skateboards... but by God, if people see you are reading while walking, they realize you are Very Serious About This Brick-Sized Novel and Will Not Stop For Anything So Trivial As a Bicycle Accident so they give you a much wider berth than they do if you're not reading.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:37 PM on October 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

I have always envied people that can remember authors, titles, the protagonist's name, detailed plot outline...
I can't. I remember the gestalt and the emotions engendered the first time* I read a book.

But I do remember where my favorite authors are located--bottom shelf, third from the right, hand goes out automatically when I'm in the mood for Barry Lopez, or 2nd shelf from the end, top row, etc.

*Sometimes it's a very unsettling feeling, to reread something and realize how much you've changed. Kind of like looking into your own head when you were younger. Who was that person?
posted by BlueHorse at 8:38 PM on October 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, speaking of, if you are a Reader, particularly if you learned to Read because you were going through some troubled times and needed some friends and a safe place to be, you should definitely read Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Jo Walton's Among Others.

Both of them brought back such strong memories of being young and sheltering in novels that they made me cry.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:40 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

What else was I going to do with that time? Shoot baskets?
posted by thelonius at 8:41 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reading is overrated. I got my degree from the Grand Academy of Lagado. Now excuse me while I tend to my stiff back...
posted by CincyBlues at 8:51 PM on October 2, 2013

"Remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting"

- Timothy "Speed" Levitch
posted by Freen at 8:53 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Framing the problem in this way is part of what I call the problem of productivity. That is, we tend to see things as having value only if they give us something that we can point to at the end of the day in a tangible way.

Experiences are more subtle, though, and good reading brings us into a good experience. They change us, even if we can't always remember what brought about that change. I don't have to be tending to something as a constant memory to carry the benefit of that experience with me.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:56 PM on October 2, 2013 [17 favorites]

The acquisition of knowledge, while you are acquiring it, can be intensely engrossing and stimulating, and a well-constructed argument is a beautiful thing. But that kind of pleasure is transient.

All kinds of pleasure are transient. And all of the knowledge you're gaining is transient as well, whether it disappears en masse when you keel over in 70 years or vanishes the minute you read it.

Outcome based life approaches seldom work. Enjoying the process is the main event, not an incidental sideshow.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:02 PM on October 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

What a silly question. I read because I love reading.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 9:04 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Did someone forget reading this similar article in the New Yorker back in May, and posted this?
posted by Apocryphon at 9:40 PM on October 2, 2013

Good article! I enjoyed, er, reading it! The third to last article threw me--hope I can ask about that without sounding like I'm dissing the article (since I liked it). Quoting from the article:

Still, reading is different from life

I think that a lot of people believe this, but I have trouble understanding it. I spend maybe 20% of my awake life reading? Does this mean I spend that time not living? I mean, the very question of how reading has influenced your life is based on this assumption that reading is something that happens outside of life ... I'm not sure why this common question has always severely puzzled me. Somehow I take this too literally or something? What am I not getting here?

reading’s great distinction may be that it is not an experience to be experienced only as an experience (otherwise, poets wouldn’t have to sweat so hard to make their poems a performance rather than discourse)

Wha? Did I read that incorrectly because it seems to argue against itself? Isn't creating a performance an attempt to make something a fantastic experience, whereas creating a discourse an attempt to make something stick with the reader after she's done reading?
posted by agog at 10:02 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

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 its contents.

The plural of anecdote is not data.

Besides, if this were true, how would anecdote possibly reveal it? "Oh hey, last month I didn't read a book, so far as I can recall."
posted by belarius at 10:10 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

"And so, you do not have to look to any of the usual places where good and evil face off, the places Herodotus just called 'the happy land of absolutes'. We have the perfect example here on the West Side where the cold cash cow, Fox Books threatens survival of a temple to one of the twentieth century's most profound truths: You are what you read."
posted by and for no one at 10:11 PM on October 2, 2013

I'm kind of boggling at the idea of not remembering what you read. Is that a thing? I mean, like, that actually happens? I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that this was even a possibility.

Sure, I don't recall, like, the specific phrasing of each sentence, but I remember much of the main thrust of nonfiction books I read and could probably reconstruct a detailed outline, at least, of any novel. (If it was a shitty novel, then I might have a harder time, and of course the longer it's been since I read it, the more decay there is, and I might transpose events a little, but I wouldn't call that "forgetting.")

Either this article has a way more stringent bar for "remembering" than I do, or I am apparently some sort of freak mutant with superhuman book-recall powers. Which would be kind of bizarre, given how awful my memory is at everything else.
posted by Scattercat at 10:35 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

If I am going to forget words I'd rather forget a good book than a mediocre conversation. And that is why I only have one friend.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 10:47 PM on October 2, 2013

I'm kind of boggling at the idea of not remembering what you read. Is that a thing?

If the reading police pulled me over and demanded an on-the-spot list of every book I've read/heard over the last couple of months and their authors ... I'd be thrown in jail. Probably tasered first for good measure.
posted by agog at 10:50 PM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I assure you that it is quite possible to respond, upon being asked if you have read a given work, "Uh...maybe? It sounds vaguely familiar." Or to find yourself halfway through a book before you realize you've read it before. Likewise with movies. Or anything, really. The brain is capable of great feats of forgetting. You can even forget how to speak your first language, even if you spoke it into adulthood.
posted by CoureurDubois at 11:05 PM on October 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm kind of boggling at the idea of not remembering what you read.

There've been plenty of times where I've borrowed a book from the library, thinking it looks interesting; but after getting a few chapters in, I realize I've read it already, years previously.

Films, too. I actually keep a list of every film I watch, going back to 2004, and even looking at some of the titles, I still draw a blank. I remember there was one title, I looked it up at the IMDB, and there were multiple films with that title, and even reading about them, I couldn't remember which one was the one I'd seen.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 11:50 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm kind of boggling at the idea of not remembering what you read. Is that a thing? I mean, like, that actually happens? I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that this was even a possibility.

How old are you? I felt exactly the same way until I hit about 35, and now some of the books I've read are becoming nothing but a blur. I mean, I know I've read Karl Schroeder's Permanence but I don't remember a thing about it. I think. It might be the one with a... girl... or something... who has a stolen ship? And someone is following her around trying to get it back? And there are lightships that travel long, sweeping orbits or something? Maybe? You get the picture.

And yet I can still name all 9 princes in Amber despite not having read the book in maybe 20 years.
posted by Justinian at 12:01 AM on October 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

Shoot I can only come up with 8 names. Whyyyyyy, god, whyyyyyyy?
posted by Justinian at 12:03 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

A lot of what you can remember depends, I think, on the kinds of books you read. If a book is tightly plotted with a lot of events that depend on other events, it's fairly easy to remember a lot of details, because you can kind of back-fill the gaps as you recall it. If a book is kind of meandering and more about characterization and description and style, its easy for it to evaporate. Same with non-fiction -- if it's just a list of interesting facts, it can be easy to just not remember them, but if the pacts are part of an argument, like, say Guns Germs and Steel, it's a lot easier to organize them in your memory room, as it were.
posted by empath at 12:09 AM on October 3, 2013

Memory is the ocean, and old monsters gnaw bones under its dark, comforting blanket.

The breakers scourge the shore, glotting it with washed up facts and half-remembered fictions, piled in strange, twisted minglings of seawood and driftweed.

Gulls swoop raucously to snatch gullets of fish: casting their song like a net for rain.

On the horizon, a small tug chugs by, sending plumes of oily smoke to trail the sunset sky.
posted by walrus at 12:12 AM on October 3, 2013 [17 favorites]

posted by paleyellowwithorange at 12:13 AM on October 3, 2013

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” - Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus
posted by Samizdata at 12:42 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Awwwwww, hell, I can't even go out on the balcony to smoke without a read in hand.
posted by Samizdata at 12:49 AM on October 3, 2013

Why are you worried about remembering if it's all written down?
posted by LogicalDash at 1:16 AM on October 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

This is slightly off-topic in relation to TFA, but I've been wanting to put this into words for a long time and this feels like close enough to the proper context, so here goes.

Preface: I'm 33. I estimate that the number of non-SF fiction books I've read in my adult life is around ten, give or take. Proper literary fiction? Fewer. I read almost nothing before the age of 17 or so, and even SF I only got into due to some vague hunch that it would be a good fit to my geeky interests. It was, and still is.

Occasionally, things like this comment thread stir a vague desire to experience the same enrichment that many of you are saying you've experienced by reading great fiction. I don't think I've ever felt it, reading my SF books. At best, I've had some of that sci-fi sense of wonder from the sheer scale or intricacy of some story elements, but it's ultimately a cheap fix, and unsustainable. At best, I feel like I'm mildly autistic in a room of neurotypical people, aware that I'm just not on the same wavelength. At worst, I'm actively annoyed by the often implied, sometimes explicitly stated message that reading a lot is a measure of one's quality as a human being. It's commonly treated as such, at least, based on how people like to brag about how much and how widely they read. Makes me want to punch someone.

There are two major aspects to my situation.

One, I've convinced myself that I'm too stupid to really get literary fiction, the classics, you know, serious books. This is based on few experiences, but they were enough to put me off books whose plots don't just chug along like summer movie screenplays. (Unsurprisingly, I am very much into space opera.) Of course, I can't know beforehand which books have plots I can follow and stories I can understand without having to resort to reading between the lines, interpreting symbolism or spotting metaphors (none of which I can do to save my life), so my book choices are guided by prejudice and familiarity. I don't want to feel stupid when reading a book. Hell, even a couple of SF books have made me give up trying to understand them. Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore by Ray Loriga is one I remember. There are many more books which I've understood only partially. Perhaps even entirely misunderstood.

Two, there's just too much literary fiction out there. Recommendations by others are a dime a dozen. Countless "Essential Books To Read Before You Die" lists abound. Limiting myself to SF books, keeping up with what's out there is at least doable, and reading most of the classics of the genre is a feasible long-term goal. And already I'm filling my limited time quota for reading with this limit in place.

Crucially, I have no reason to pick up any one book over any other book. I've yet to independently find a single non-SF book that would intrigue me based on the back cover blurb or, in the case of the classics, what little knowledge I've osmosed about the plot or theme. No sentient space ships, no FTL travel, no intergalactic conflict. Lame.

Take a chance, you might say. Pick up this book or that book and just give it a shot. Well, that would be the rational thing to do, certainly. But like I said, I don't want to risk feeling stupid and inadequate again, having my ego bruised again. It's bruised enough without misplaced reading ambitions. A variation of this is that I follow the plot OK and seem to understand the book, but feel nothing. "That was it? That's a classic of world literature? WTF am I missing here?" I say and curse having wasted my time, with a nagging voice telling me that it HAS to be me just being too stupid again, with all these people praising the book to no end. The resistance to picking up the next book is again a bit stronger than it already was.

So, stick to SF, be happy. Yeah, for a while. But then something like this thread comes along...

End regurgitation. Not much point to this comment. But I feel a tiny bit better having written it.

tl;dr: guy wishes he was vaguely more cultivated and appreciative of things deserving appreciation, is not, wallows in self-pity
posted by jklaiho at 1:25 AM on October 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

If we so quickly forget the bulk of what we read, is it a waste of time to read so much?

Not if you keep a booklog.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:39 AM on October 3, 2013

tl;dr: guy wishes he was vaguely more cultivated and appreciative of things deserving appreciation, is not, wallows in self-pity

Try reading 'literary sci-fi' like David Mitchell.
posted by empath at 1:42 AM on October 3, 2013

Besides, everything you do to change yourself is pointless, because you'll be dead in less than a hundred years.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:42 AM on October 3, 2013

Long books? They come and go like days unless like a stage act you're stepping through memory rooms to recall -- "Voila!" -- each passage. Nonfiction is a day inside, maybe locked in a fine library, maybe trapped in air conditioning and fluorescent light. A bad novel is a seat on a city bus going to the place it says on the schedule and the front of the bus. A good novel is day and night out in the elements. You enjoy or endure each of them as, like days, they come and go, long books.

But you can remember every word of a poem. I often say my favorite poems to myself when no one is listening. I practice performing them, feel about for just the right way to say each line. I am committed to memory.
posted by pracowity at 1:45 AM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

but by God, if people see you are reading while walking, they realize you are Very Serious About This Brick-Sized Novel and Will Not Stop For Anything So Trivial As a Bicycle Accident so they give you a much wider berth than they do if you're not reading.

Does not work when reading ebooks on your phone. Or so a ...friend of mine figured out the hard way.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:47 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Limiting myself to SF books, keeping up with what's out there is at least doable, and reading most of the classics of the genre is a feasible long-term goal.

Not really. Somewhere between 500-1000 science fiction books are published in English each year. You can't read fast enough to keep up, let alone delve into the 90+ year history of the genre.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:57 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, don't try to read all of anything unless you decide to be the world's greatest (or only) expert in one very narrow category. Find critics you trust and read the things they agree are worth your limited time.

It's usually not even a good idea to read all of one author unless the books are short and few enough. A person might love science fiction, but you don't need to read the nine billion books of Art Clarke. Read the top handful of his novels and a good anthology of his short stories and then move on. If you think some of them are really great, go back and read them again rather than going on to read his lesser works.
posted by pracowity at 3:09 AM on October 3, 2013

Will I keep this thread in my permanent file after the three month review?

I don't know yet.
posted by dragonsi55 at 3:40 AM on October 3, 2013

There's an African saying that "when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground".

It all ends up forgotten, in the end. But that's no reason not to build libraries or read books. Or do other things that are quickly forgotten but run some kind of compilable code through the brain and thus the culture.
posted by chavenet at 4:28 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wahts the point of anything if we don't remember it? I certainly don't remember most of the things I've done in the last year, let alone my life. I vaguely remember bits from books I read while 7-11

"A tomato gets control of a tank"
"Theres an avalanche, but the main character isn't worried because he knows insurance will cover it"
"Theres an indian in this guy's cupboard"
"There are talking animals and everyone dies" (ah Robin Jarvis)

But similarly I could describe significant days I spent there, or indeed the content of school. We are, of course, the sum of our experiences, so the idea that the books we read doesn't affect that is clearly false. Ultimately I read books to enjoy them. A long the way I expect to pick up some interesting ideas and potentially expand my vocabulary. Hell, I do the same with countless meta filter threads. I've read a lot of articles online, and can't remember most of them, but they have definitely altered my thinking. I couldn't describe most of the articles I've read about feminism, but reading them has definitely altered my thinking on the subject.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 4:41 AM on October 3, 2013

When my son was 6 or 7 he read a Hardy Boys book in what appeared to be record time. I doubted he had actually read the book. So I picked it up, turned to a random page, and questioned him on a plot point. He answered correctly and in surprising detail, and then added that if I turned the page there was a picture of the event in question.

I wonder if kids generally remember what they read better than adults, or if my son was just a freak of nature on this particular thing? He is a college history major today and based on his grades I would guess he is still exceptionally good at remembering what he has read.
posted by COD at 6:48 AM on October 3, 2013

the little girl on the plane / who turned her doll's head around / to look at me
posted by lulz at 6:49 AM on October 3, 2013

I am reminded of a friend who asked me why I took Vitamin C since I only pissed it out during the day. I said: Why do you bother eating since you shit it out during the day.
posted by Postroad at 6:52 AM on October 3, 2013

COD, my father did exactly the same thing when I was about nine and was blowing through Watership Down at record speed. I do have pretty good recall of things I read - if they are things I'm invested in, in the first place. I've been working through a sort of personal project to read through as many of the "1001 books to read before you die" as I can - and there are a couple books here and there that I've read, but don't remember a thing about at all. However, those tend to have been the books I didn't really like too much anyway.

The books I did like, though, I remember more of, even if it's just a specific scene or a specific phrasing - like in Kavalier and Klay, I remember some of the exact phrasing during the early discussion the two characters have about how to "draw" a fart, or this one scene from Ragtime where there's this throwaway description of one throwaway character who is getting so caught up in positioning his chair so that the light is best that he ends up stuck obsessively turning his chair around and around in a circle, moving it an inch to the right, then sitting in it, then getting up and shifting it more, then trying it again, and....

Maybe the stuff we read as kids just doesn't have as much other prior stuff to fight for space with. But whether or not you like what you're reading also has an impact - or, also whether you're in a decent headspace (I tried reading Lord Of The Rings immediately after 9/11, and then reread it a few years later and was surprised to find that there were entire whole scenes I just plain didn't remember from the previous read - the entire Barrow-Wights scene just plain hadn't registered with me).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:57 AM on October 3, 2013

MartinWisse - I do the same thing - although most of my reviews are short and succinct. But I do find scrolling back through them from time to time does help refresh my memory about what I've read, and reading my short summaries often does help draw up other details from the books.
posted by COD at 7:05 AM on October 3, 2013

I'd say that the more you talk about what you read, the more likely you are to remember it. Of course, what you "remember" ossifies a bit - you develop "talking points" that detach a little from the experience of the book itself, there's a danger in putting things into precise words.

Now that I know I'll never have an academic career, I've been able to stop caring about mastery of a large body of books. Honestly, what if I read a book and there's one thing in there which changes me and which I remember? That's enough. Or what if I read a book and forget it, but before I forget it the book moves me to read something which I don't forget, or to have a meaningful conversation or to take an action?

It is possible to train the memory, though. If you really want to remember what you read, it's helpful to read in a systematic manner. I've found that I remember much more now that I focus on reading science fiction theory, literary theory and feminist science fiction because there's a lot of cross-referencing.
posted by Frowner at 7:08 AM on October 3, 2013

There are books from my childhood that I remember vividly. Then there were Ann and David, their dog, cat and dull family. I already knew how to read, but why in the world did they introduce children to reading with such bores? I remember reading Black Beauty and not recognizing the message of animal cruelty, but totally understanding the message of friendship. But I still remember the description of harnesses holding horse's heads at an angle that made it hard for them to move properly. And I remember Beauty's owner, who got sick waiting in the for his wealthy patron. Is that where I started caring about worker's rights? I remember discovering The Once and Future King, and a little bit of the magic made it into the movie. Merlin turns young Arthur into different animals to help him learn to see different perspectives.

In Fahrenheit 451, people carry books in their head. They introduce themselves to one another as the book that's preserved in their memory. I'll be over at the campfire, with the people who have a library in their memory.
posted by theora55 at 7:13 AM on October 3, 2013

I've totally read a novel by the author of this article (James Collins). And no, I don't remember any of it.
posted by mr. manager at 7:29 AM on October 3, 2013

This transcends books and reading and touches on expectations many of us acquired in school and through other forms of social conditioning, such as decades of living in a capitalist culture:

1. the point of any activity is the payoff at the end.

2. reading is a sort of intelligence test.

And one additional "rule," which is probably gifted us via our genes and reinforced by cultural trends:

3. randomness is scary and the key to life is control of oneself and one's environment.

I realize those rules and urges needn't trump everything else. One can enjoy one's job and the paycheck one receives for doing it. But, for many people (and certainly for me—or at least the younger me), the latter blunts the former.

I'm not going to argue that payoffs are bad, intelligence is meaningless, and control is pointless. I don't believe that. But I do believe that life is better if you can loosen your grip on those values and embrace some other ones. At least, my life is better to the extent that I've done that, and it's taken me many decades to get to this point. I had to undo a huge amount of conditioning. I didn't consciously try to undo it, but somehow it happened, and I'm much happier as a result.

Happiness research keeps suggesting that experiences are more fulfilling that acquisitions, but that's hard to accept when one grows up in a world of birthday presents (that are mostly objects), commercials enticing us to buy more and more stuff, and eight-hours every day centered around the goal of getting paid. And I count "the stuff I learned from a book" as an acquisition, even if it isn't a physical object. The point is, it's different form the experience of reading the book. And the question is why do so many of us value what we acquire more than what we experience? I suspect (based on navel gazing) that the answer is largely connected with ego.

(I am not, here, talking about vocational books. If you're whole reason for reading "How to Knit" is to learn how to knit, you'll rightly be chagrinned if you don't. My question is why so much of our recreational reading is goal-oriented in this way and whether that's healthy. Our culture certainly condones it, as when parents prefer buying their kids "educational books" to ones that are "just stories")

Here's a question worth asking yourself: would you ever consider spending a year working on a painting (or some other art project) and then burning the work afterwards and not taking any photographs of it before setting it on fire? I'm talking about a work you like, not one you hate or consider a failure.

I'm not suggesting you're odd or pathological if you'd balk at this, but ask yourself whether you'd find any meaning in the experience at all or if you'd consider the whole thing completely pointless? If that's the case (or largely the case), then it's all about the end-product for you. Why?

If you don't consider it pointless, do you justify it by saying, "Well, maybe the painting will be gone, but by spending a year on it, I'll have sharpened my skills," you're still thinking in terms of payoff. Is there any part of you that can simply enjoy the process of painting for whatever it gives you in-the-moment and find that as worthwhile as any payoff you might or might not get?

I am a little worried that I'll come across as if I'm saying, "If you can't do this, you're 'not fully evolved'" or as if I'm claiming some sort of superiority, because I've (to some extent) managed to change this part of myself (without purposefully trying), but I don't mean that. What I do mean is that these sorts of questions are worth asking. If payoffs are important to you and you're happy, that's great. They mostly make me anxious and incapable of enjoying experiences, so for me it's good to focus on other stuff. Maybe you're similar; maybe not.

But the change that's gradually come over me became clear in a recent conversation I had with a friend who was visiting me from out-of-town. I direct plays, and he keeps reading posts about them on Facebook, but since he doesn't live where I do, he can never see them. And there wasn't one running when he happened to be in town.

He asked, "Do you ever video tape them?" I explained that I can't for legal reasons, and that even if I could, I probably wouldn't, because stage plays are hard to film in a way that preserves the experience.

He said, "Doesn't it make you sad that everything you've done, for the last 25 years, is gone, and that you have nothing to show for it?" Before he said that, I hadn't really thought about it, but he made me realize that no, it doesn't bother me in the least. I doesn't even occur to me to be bothered by it. I am saddened that some of my friends can't see my plays, but that's the only negative. I don't care about "having something to show."

If I could preserve my shows in some way, I don't know that I'd bother. I'm an experience junkie (or I've become one), and once I've finished directing a show, the experience is over, and I'd rather move on to a new experience than watch a replay of an old one. For the same reason, I'd rather read a new book (and have a new experience) than mull over what I've learned from an old one.

This isn't because I tried to cultivate some sort of Zen mindset. It's simply a result of having spent over two decades working in a field where everything is ephemeral. It's just "how it is," and if I hadn't somehow learned to be okay with it, I'd have quit the theatre long ago and, perhaps, become a filmmaker. (My "day job" is computer programming, and I mostly work on ads, not long-standing programs like Photoshop. So even in my non-theatre work, most of what I do is expend a huge amount of thought, creativity, and energy on stuff that vanishes shortly after.)

In fact, I have dim memories of being a very young director and being upset that I couldn't video my shows. (This was before video cameras were cheap and ubiquitous.) Back then, my plays were an extension of my ego, and my main reason for directing was to prove how creative I was. I wanted to impress people, and I wanted to compete with other directors. (I first started directing when I was in school, where pretty much all activities were geared towards getting an A.)

And I also remember living in a state of continual anxiety. I was constantly worried that I'd fail, by which I mean I'd fail to impress people; I'd fail to "be a good director"; I'd fail at getting an A. Each success gave me a rush of excitement, and then, shortly after, anxiety would flood back in again. "What if I fail next time?"

My work back then was almost entirely about me and not about the plays I was working on, the people I was working with, or the audiences I was (supposedly) working for. Except to the extent that those things served my ego. To a large extent, it didn't matter what play I was working on, because it wasn't about the play. It was about me. And "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" could work just as well as "King Lear" as a tool for me to further my interests.

Very gradually, I became less interested in those goals and more interested in the plays themselves—and in the collaborative process of building them. And I remember one day realizing that I was happier as as servant, not a master. That my job was to serve the plays, serve the actors, and serve the audiences. I worked for them, not the other way around. When I realized that, it was like I was able to take deep breaths for the first time since childhood—breaths of air that seemed to come from a world I lived in before school.

I now feel like I've failed if people leave the theatre saying, "Wow! That director was really creative" and I've succeeded if they say, "I cried because Cordelia reminded me of my daughter." If they're thinking about me in any way, positive or negative, that's like them leaving a dinner party thinking about the butler.

It took me over ten years to reset my brain this way, to set it back to a childish state of exploration where I didn't even think about payoffs, and I'm a much happier person in the aftermath. My life feels much richer, because I'm enjoying things more as they happen and less as one big anticipation for some future "paycheck."

And I've become totally bored by rating, ranking, or even thinking about my intelligence. I don't remember ever doing that before I started school. That was almost entirely a learned behavior, and for me it was pathological.

I am deeply saddened by this:

I've convinced myself that I'm too stupid to really get literary fiction, the classics, you know, serious books. ... I [only enjoy reading books] I can understand without having to resort to reading between the lines, interpreting symbolism or spotting metaphors ... I don't want to feel stupid when reading a book.

Where do these values come from if not school? Why do we train people to connect reading with "feeling smart" or "feeling stupid." That's like an arrow pointing away from the content of the book and the visceral experience of reading it. It's like walking on the beach and focusing on "I'm now a person who has been to this beach" rather than the grittiness of the sand between one's toes.

About 70% of what I read is literary fiction and classics, and I have no interest in "interpreting symbolism," mining themes, or any of the stuff we're taught to do in school. I enjoy "King Lear" the same way I enjoy "The Golden Compass," and I don't rank them. If you view all works as being primarily about plot, character, mood, suspense, and fun-with-words, then distinctions like "highbrow" and "lowbrow" are meaningless.

I'm not suggesting that people who enjoy viewing books through an academic lens—if they really do enjoy do that—are fools; I'm suggesting that schools make lots of people think they're supposed to view a class of books that way and tells them they're stupid if they don't. And so we wind up with tons of people who hate Shakespeare or feel like he's bitter but necessary medicine. Or who like Shakespeare because they "get it" and that makes them feel smart, as opposed to liking it because Lear's treatment of Cordelia makes them cry or because Shakespeare's verse rhythms make their hearts beat faster.

Many people would be happier if they embraced randomness. I'd been trying to do that for many years, without quite understanding my intent or how to talk about it. I was groping towards something I couldn't express and then I read "Antifragile." And I thought, "Yes! Of course!"

Because I'd noticed for years that the most exciting, joyful experiences I had involved giving up control and allowing whatever wanted to hit me to hit me and allowing it to affect me however it affected me. Expecting a payoff at the end of a book and cursing the fact that you don't remember anything is about control. It's wanting or expecting control over the reading experience and control over one's brain. That's a natural desire, and it's scary to feel out-of-control (though it can be exhilarating too), but control is largely an illusion, and we're constantly slammed against the reality that we're not driving the bus. (It's driving us.) So it's worth developing strategies to embrace what is.

Which means giving up all expectations when reading a book, including expectations of what you'll remember, that you'll remember anything, or "this is how it will be useful to me."

I make the assumption (bared out by experience) that everything that goes in will affect me somehow and the less I try to control how, the better. This has paid off in spades, but again I can't take credit for consciously trying to read this way. It's just a mode I went into after spending years trying to control everything, realizing I couldn't, and realizing I wasn't enjoying the process.

I recommend playing peek-a-book with books. Say, "that was a cool experience. I wonder how it will affect me!" And then, on that day when you walk past a dented mailbox and something about it brings a paragraph of the book to mind, say, "Peek-a-boo!"

I've come to see my brain as Cookie Monster. It has an insatiable appetite for the cookies we call art, travel, conversations, musings, projects, and so on. I'm happiest when I keep feeding the monster without worrying about what happens to the cookies once he swallows them. The thrill is the taste of them on the tongue and the random ways they affect his moods, thoughts, and output later.

Randomness is much, much smarter than I am.
posted by grumblebee at 8:32 AM on October 3, 2013 [14 favorites]

I've convinced myself that I'm too stupid to really get literary fiction, the classics, you know, serious books.

It helps if you remember that these are marketing categories and have nothing to do with the actual content of the book. I see SFF in the literary fiction section all the time, but it won't appeal to SFF buyers (or, more honestly, the litfic buyers won't find it in the SFF section) and therefore it's classed somewhere else so the right buyers can find it.
posted by immlass at 8:49 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Only doing something for lasting impact brings you dangerously close to what Doris Lessing called The Existential Problem, in that ultimately all our activities seem futile from the long perspective, unless we grant some value in the love of living that they allow us to experience at the time.
posted by walrus at 9:52 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

"One, I've convinced myself that I'm too stupid to really get literary fiction, the classics, you know, serious books. This is based on few experiences, but they were enough to put me off books whose plots don't just chug along like summer movie screenplays. (Unsurprisingly, I am very much into space opera.) Of course, I can't know beforehand which books have plots I can follow and stories I can understand without having to resort to reading between the lines, interpreting symbolism or spotting metaphors (none of which I can do to save my life), so my book choices are guided by prejudice and familiarity. I don't want to feel stupid when reading a book. Hell, even a couple of SF books have made me give up trying to understand them. Tokyo Doesn't Love Us Anymore by Ray Loriga is one I remember. There are many more books which I've understood only partially. Perhaps even entirely misunderstood."

So, I'm about 200 pages into After the Flood by Margret Atwood. It's a Sci-Fi novel, a dystopic future apocalypse. I love it, and it follows the basic pattern that I have with Atwood: Six months to slog through the first hundred pages, the rest of the book read in a week or so sprint.

It's also a literary novel, rich with allusions, metaphors, similes and jokes. Many of which I don't get, and won't get unless I go and do some googling about any given St. Wassisname. But most of that isn't important to the plot — the plot is almost all about human relationships in a difficult time, told with a real resonant sense of these characters as fully-realized, multi-faceted humans.

The reason why I bring this up is that I think you have kind of a skewed idea of what reading should be like, this vision of edification and depth, that isn't really there and is actively making your life worse.

There's a lot to read that's not easy, but can be pretty deeply rewarding. Believe it or not, Moby Dick pretty much sails in terms of readability — it has lots of short chapters, lots of funny asides, and for all the reputation for symbolism, most of it's pretty apparent right off the bat, especially given the general cultural knowledge (the white whale represents an unobtainable obsession, etc.).

So I'd say three things to you: First, you only really have to engage on the level that you want to engage on. You can totally read Oryx and Crake or After the Flood for plot only and be entertained. There's more if you want it, but it's very rare that books written in the 20th century require more extra-textual knowledge than just a willingness to keep reading. Second, reading like that comes from practice. I read a lot because I like to read, though my girlfriend puts me to shame. She mostly reads sci-fi too, though she's got more patience for literary fiction than I do. You start to catch things, if only through repeated exposure.

Finally, and this is advice that an older librarian gave at a talk my girlfriend attended: If you don't like a book in the first 10 pages, it's OK to put it down and not worry about it. There's no guilt — sometimes, you'll come back to a book later, but you don't have to, and not everyone will like every book. I find shit like Jonathan Franzen insufferable, because I honestly just don't give a shit about the maunderings of men and their feelz. Kavilier and Clay just didn't grab me, despite everyone gushing over it. On the other hand, I love Paul Auster and will happily return to his stuff over and over (even though he edges into the middle-aged libido angst too much sometimes). I should have quit The Road instead of finishing it; I just didn't find the bleakness that interesting. That's all OK. People have different tastes.
posted by klangklangston at 12:34 PM on October 3, 2013

Does reading mean anything if you don't remember it? leads me to:
Does an idea matter if you never write it down or tell anyone about it? which leads me to:
Does an idea matter if I write it down or tell people about it but they don't remember it? which leads me to:
Does the idea matter if I do write it down and the people who do read it don't forget it, really, but they already know me and/or are already in similar enough life situations to me to have had the same experiences and ideas anyway, which leads me to:
Not updating my blog in a really really long time
posted by ook at 1:09 PM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

If we so quickly forget the bulk of what we read, is it a waste of time to read so much?

Because memory is a weird thing, and literal, exact recollection is only the most shallow version of it. Just because you can't recite it doesn't mean you don't know it.

Our experiences change us in a myriad of ways, not all of which we understand. And many times, how we react in a given situation is not strongly defined, and depends on situational factors.

Back in college I read Catch-22. It was, and is, an amazing book. I cannot quote much of it, but it crystallized some things I had been thinking for a while. The things it described and the situations (while fictional) it detailed pushed a few things in my head over from Suspicion to Belief by a few points, and a few other things from Unconcerned to Suspicion. This is how people change, most times, it's not direct epiphanies but sneaking suspicions.

The thing is, the human brain isn't a logic machine, that constantly builds actions and statements out of premises. Instead, we use logic, observation and inductive reasoning together to create a worldview. That's why it's hard to turn people from things like nationalism and racism, because they've misconstructed their worldviews, and it's only through constant and repeated exposure to truth that that can be changed.

The result is, if I got Movie Amnesia tomorrow and forgot everything I "know" except for speech and stuff like that, I would still have that matrix of impulses and biases, and that's where many of our less-examined actions come from. If I didn't have that, what would I be? And that's what literature has the power to affect, and that depends nothing at all about whether you can "remember" the work.
posted by JHarris at 1:33 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

"A tomato gets control of a tank"

Is that a joke example? Because I feel like I really remember something like that as well, and I don't believe it's because of those crazy tomato movies.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:24 PM on October 3, 2013

NYT: "I Know How You're Feeling, I Read Chekov".
A striking new study found that reading literary fiction – as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction – leads people to perform better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.
posted by immlass at 4:48 PM on October 3, 2013

This transcends books and reading and touches on expectations many of us acquired in school and through other forms of social conditioning, such as decades of living in a capitalist culture:


Randomness is much, much smarter than I am.

I may have forgotten a lot of the comments I've read, but some I assimilate, others I reject and the rest make me forget or remember that man makes his own meaning in the universe (hello, Camus). Sometimes reading even provides context because I'll be reading a comment and think 'hey, this could be grumblebee'.

Good to have you back, grumblebee.
posted by ersatz at 5:17 PM on October 3, 2013

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