Can't Remember What's in Books

The effect of the reading experience was the central issue that drew me to the field of literature. Reading a book is like any other experience. You are a different person afterwards than you were before. But in what way? And to what degree? Further, what is the cumulative impact of reading book after book, essay after essay, year after year?

During all the time I was teaching and doing research in psychology, I never encountered anyone or any systematic program of research in the discipline that was investigating these questions. This surprised me and continues to do so. Given all the reading of literary fiction and non-fiction we do, one has to wonder if and how we are influenced by it.

These questions were considered by James Collins in his essay, The Plot Escapes Me, in the Times Book Review last Sunday (9/19/10). Collins says he finds it impossible to remember much of anything about the books he’s read. And then he wonders what is the point of reading after all, if you can’t remember what’s in them?

Yes, he answers, we read for pleasure and sometimes to learn something new. But then he confesses, “When we read a serious book, we want to learn something, we want it to change us, and it hardly seems for that to happen if its fugitive content passes through us like light through glass.”

Surely, he speculates, reading a book must have affected his “brain” in terms of the ways he thinks and “…they must have left deposits of information…that continues to affect me even if I can’t detect it. Mustn’t they have?”

To find out he calls Professor Maryanne Wolf, the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” to see if she might shed some light on his puzzlement. She was the right person to call, especially if he wanted to find out what current neurological thinking is on these matters. If he had called me, he might have written an entirely different essay, one that would never have appeared in the Times Book Review.

Wolf gives him the answer he wants, the one he more or less answered himself the way he framed the questions. Wolf claims, Collins is a different person for having read all the books he tells her about.

“There is a difference between immediate recall of facts and an ability to recall a gestalt of knowledge. We can’t retrieve the specifics, but to adapt a phrase of William James’s, there is a wraith of memory. The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”

All this is very encouraging of course both to Collins and all the rest of us dedicated readers. Yet, it still seems rather fanciful to me. Let us just say that all the books I’ve read by Ian McEwan changed my brain in some way. And let us also agree that a neurophysiologist can measure all the ups and down of my neurons while I was reading them, that they are most active in the left ventral occipito-temporal cortex. But knowing all that still leaves me in the dark about how these brain processes get translated into my beliefs and actions. Doesn’t it?

The same questions hold for all the Philip Roth books I’ve read or that single masterpiece Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. Yes, my brain was hoping all over the place when I read those books and I suppose it was changed in some fashion by those experiences. But after saying that, I remain stranded at the choice point, having no clear idea how my now-changed-brain influences the decision I make, the attitude I hold, or the course of action I take.

Yes, hearing Wolf’s views and even reading her highly regarded book might make some degree of intuitive sense. But in terms of really getting a handle on the concrete effects of reading literature, I remain as baffled as ever.

Quite frankly, in my mind Wolf’s account isn’t any more enlightening than the one Lorrie Moore, a writer not a neuroscientist, mind you, made several years ago: "Everything one reads is nourishment of some sort--good food or junk food--and one assumes it all goes in and has its way with your brain cells."


Gillian said...

I, too, have questioned the value of reading when I can recall very little of the content later. Sometimes it worries at me. I keep reading because I enjoy the experience, and because quite a lot of content seems to stick and resonate with other content in interesting ways.

Perhaps this is partly why I am drawn to read in themes or batches. So, I'll read several works by a single author, to get to know them, so to speak. Or I'll read around a topic from different angles.

In "This is your brain on music", Daniel Levitin spells out in detail some of the ways the brain perceives sound patterns with great accuracy -- creating our overall perception of music. Tones are recognised in relation to each other, and broad musical structures are recognised so that expectations are established for what comes next. Composers play with these expectations by fulfilling, delaying, surprising, etc.

I have a sense that literary forms have similar broad dynamics that establish our expectations. The writer plays with these expectations to create the reader experience. This seems to relate to the experience of reading as nourishment, or the wraith of memory that operates below awareness levels.

For some reading, perhaps it is enough to enjoy/experience the process as it happens without worrying about outputs or outcomes. Like listening to music.

Richard Katzev said...

I particularly like your last paragraph. That reading is like listening to music. Sometimes, of course. Just enjoy it. Period.

Stefanie said...

I like Lorrie Moore's explanation. I think books do stick around even if we can't remember the details. They are part of how we see the world or how we think the world should and should not operate, the sorts of people that are in the world and how they behave and how we might interact with them. Books, at least for me, also make me more likely to be compassionate toward others because I am able to imagine what makes them say and do the things they do.

Richard Katzev said...


I hope you are right. I have "faith" that you are. But no real proof. How are things in Berlin?


Stefanie said...

Berlin is lovely this time of year. The leaves are changing colors, nights are cool and days are sunny and comfortable. So perfect I'm waiting for the shoe to drop because I know it just can't last.

Richard Katzev said...

Sounds a lot like Minneapolis, my home town.