Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

ON FORGETFULNESS....On Friday I received in the mail a copy of Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read1, which, it turns out, doesn't really offer much in the way of practical advice on its putative subject. Rather, it's a rumination on the idea that when we talk about a book, we're often talking not so much about the book itself as we are about the author of the book, other books written by the same author, what other people are saying about the book, the controversies surrounding the book, the historical context of the book, etc. etc. This frankly strikes me as such an obvious point that I'm not sure it's really worth devoting an entire book to, but that bit of crabbiness aside, Bayard does manage to be both engaging and erudite on the subject, plucking lots of interesting little examples from literature of people discussing books they've either merely skimmed (Bayard's preferred mode of reading) or not read at all. He also has the good sense to keep the book nice and short.

What interested me much more, however, was something very specific: the discovery that my own sieve-like memory for books was shared by no less a literary trailblazer than Michel de Montaigne. In the chapter on "books I have forgotten" (one of Bayard's four categories of books; the others are "books I have skimmed," "books I have heard about," and "books unknown to me"), he quotes from Montaigne's Essays2:

I leaf through books, I do not study them. What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else's. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.

....To compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory, so extreme that it has happened to me more than once to pick up again, as recent and unknown to me, books which I read carefully a few years before and scribbled over with my notes, I have adopted the habit for some time now of adding at the end of each book (I mean of those I intend to use only once) the time I finished reading it and the judgment I have derived of it as a whole, so that this may represent to me at least the sense and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it.

What's more, Montaigne admits that his memory is so poor that not only can't he remember other people's books, he often can't even remember books that he himself has written. Bayard summarizes: "Following Montaigne, we should perhaps use the term unreading rather than reading to characterize the unceasing sweep of our forgetfulness. This process involves both the disappearance and the blurring of references, and transforms books, often reduced to their titles or to a few approximate pages, into dim shadows gliding along the surface of our consciousness."

You're singing my song, Montaigne! My retention level has gotten so bad that I literally barely remember the beginning of a book by the time I've finished the last chapter. Like Montaigne, it is only "the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued" that stick with me. Books affect how I think about things, but once that's happened the actual details of what I've read disappear almost instantly.

And my own writing? Just as bad. I can read through my own blog archives from six months ago and it's like reading someone else's blog. Sometimes I'm impressed by what I apparently wrote earlier in the year and other times I cringe, but generally speaking it's as if I'm reading it for the first time.

And forgetting entirely that I've even read a book? Check. Last year I bought a copy of George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails3, and thought it was a nice little story. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to clean up a bit and shelve all the piles of books lying around, and when I got around to shelving WGF I discovered I already had a copy. One that gave every sign of having been thoroughly read (I'm pretty tough on book spines). But I didn't have even a clue of this when I was (re)reading it last year. Not even a single sentence, character or scene rang a bell with me.

This forgetfulness is one of the banes of my life. It drives me nuts. But now I feel slightly better. Instead of calling myself forgetful, I shall now begin referring to myself as Montaigne-esque. Much better.

(And I have something Montaigne lacked: Google. All hail Google, the amnesiac's best friend!)

1SB+ (++ for Tyler Cowen)
3SB and, apparently, FB+

Note: I'm following Bayard's usage here. He believes that we should all be honest about which books we've read and which ones we haven't, and that we should not allow non-familiarity to prevent us from expressing an opinion about books. So, SB = skimmed, HB = heard of, UB = unknown to me, and FB = read once but forgotten. There are no other alternatives. Opinions are expressed using + and –.

Kevin Drum 8:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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SB? FB? ??

Posted by: asdf on October 14, 2007 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, what was this post about? Can someone please skim it quickly and give me the gist?

Posted by: Kenji on October 14, 2007 at 8:54 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter Kevin: Cliff Notes are still your friends.

Posted by: freelunch on October 14, 2007 at 8:55 PM | PERMALINK

For 18 years now I have saved on my computer a brief synopsis of every book I read- title, author, copyright date, genre, rating, number of pages, and my review. It's really handy when I want to refer somebody else to a book on the subject, or if I want to go to the library and look for an author who got at least 4 stars (out of 5). It really helps when you have a sucky memory. In fact, my memory is to the point that I just re-read a great book- a collection of Red Smith's columns on baseball from 1946 through the end of the 1970's, and although I had just read it a few years ago, it was as fresh as the first time I encountered it.

Posted by: goose99 on October 14, 2007 at 9:01 PM | PERMALINK

Admit it, Kevin. You haven't actually read Bayard's book.

Posted by: Petey on October 14, 2007 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

Dude, you wrote this exact same post last year.

Posted by: gussie on October 14, 2007 at 9:08 PM | PERMALINK

I know people who have nearly perfect recollection of movies they've seen only once. They start reciting their favorite scenes as soon as we leave the theater.

Unfortunately, they prefer to memorize Porky's 2 in preference to My Dinner with Andre.

Posted by: FS on October 14, 2007 at 9:10 PM | PERMALINK

Why are you working to keep the story of Mickey Kaus the goat blower out of the blogosphere?

It hasn't been denied by a single source yet.

Posted by: Nigerian Dwarf on October 14, 2007 at 9:11 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, bless you, Kevin for giving me comfort on one of my deepest, darkest secrets. I love reading and devour books and remember almost nothing. I admonish myself for not remembering more and demand that I take notes while reading so I can immediately refresh my memory, but laziness always wins.

But it's worse than that. I'm often prevented from enjoying books because I've already read them. Long ago, I read all of Graham Greene's novels and enjoyed them hugely. But I can barely remember anything from them. But I feel a great resistance to picking up any one of them again because I already read the damn thing twenty years ago, and some deep subconscious thing prevents me from reading it again. Like I'm cheating and not devoting myself to fresh, new experiences.

Posted by: santamonicamr on October 14, 2007 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

I do pretty much the same thing, expecially when I traveled. Stopping at airport book stores I would pick up what I thought was a new Dean Koontz book only to discover after a few chapters I was psychic and could prophetize what happened next. I was a messiah..a Messiah I tell you!!

Okay, I fibbed...Actually what was happening,and I had to ask the clerk, "Are they changing the book covers pictures between titles?" Yes, Yes they were the sneaky bastids!!

Anyway, I dont have much recall when it comes to books eiher, nor the names of the characters in them, it is also that way for me after watching movies, who played what part..the dates. ALl the things the folks, like Atrios/Eschaton, excel at and commenting on who said what in what film by what director or writer, I sucked at.

But, thats okay, faces and dates gained from books and films have never been important, as dont deal personally with them and they have little, actually no effect on daily life seeing as I was a mechanic. That doesn't mean we have poor memories tho Kevin because I can picture schematics quite well and can rotate them three dimensionally in my mind. From cars to the inner workings of say..the 727's or 737's I used to work on. Ducts and tubes and wires and cables and all that.

And the people I know who are good at that kind of celluloid/bookworm memory cant, for the most part, turn a screwdriver the correct direction.

Montaigne-esque or Schematic-ness?

Posted by: Ya Know... on October 14, 2007 at 9:18 PM | PERMALINK

This might be more of a problem for the type of person who thinks they're missing something if they haven't read this week's latest political non-fiction potboiler, or is reading something they think they should be reading because it got a great review from the New York Review of Books, or because all the Right People and their friends are reading it.

If you're not enjoying the book, it isn't going to stick in your head.

Non-fiction books are good for learning facts. Unfortunately, most of them today are simply somebody else's view of somebody's view of something. If you dig, sometimes there's a fact in there somewhere. Otherwise, you're basically standing at a cocktail party listening to somebody expound on what he thinks of something, usually with very few new insights.

Even modern fiction is sometimes so "relevant" that a lot of it stays on the coffee table after someone has bought it mostly because it was #3 on this week's Best Seller list.

What sells year after year is the stuff people like to read. Just for themselves. I believe the best-selling fiction author of all time is still Agatha Christie.

Posted by: harry on October 14, 2007 at 9:27 PM | PERMALINK

In high school they always listed when Finals would be by teacher name. Each semester I'd have to figure out how to get someone to tell my my teachers' names in the least embarrassing way possible. I don't know why they just assume everyone knows arcane stuff like that.

Posted by: Mark on October 14, 2007 at 9:27 PM | PERMALINK

I am reminding of the right-brain left-brain experiment with the spinning dancer you mentioned roughly yesterday. I saw the dancer spinning counter clockwise (except once, with great effort,I made her spin clockwise). I remember passages from books. I also get lost a lot and have a terrible sense of direction ( the right side of the brain handles imagining things in space). Maybe you really are right brain dominant.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on October 14, 2007 at 9:33 PM | PERMALINK

There is no-fucking-way those 12 people read that whole ass-long narrative before posting before me.


Posted by: absent observer! on October 14, 2007 at 9:33 PM | PERMALINK

Montaigne dissimulates. Have you read the Essays? That guy quotes everything he's ever read. Except without quoting it. He's like Doris Kearns Goodwin. The editor of his Essays, his adopted daughter Marie le Jars de Gournay, actually went through an annotated everything.
My personal favorite essays: On experience (which is thematized around wedding night jitters); On the resemblance of fathers to their children (which is thematized around the agony of passing kidney stones).

Posted by: lisainvan on October 14, 2007 at 9:42 PM | PERMALINK

This brings up an expression that has always struck me as just strange and off.

In praise of how much someone knows compared to someone else, they will say of him that "A has forgotten more than B has ever known."

My reaction to this comment is that, well, you know, I think I come very close to having forgotten more than I ever knew about everything. There's just the tiniest bit more about any given subject that I've remembered than I've forgotten. At any given time T, wait another year, and I will have forgotten more than I ever knew up to time T about the subject in question.

So why is this such a compliment?

Posted by: frankly0 on October 14, 2007 at 9:44 PM | PERMALINK

The real question is, did you actually read How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, or are you talking about a book you haven't read and if the latter is true, how did you learn how to talk about a book you haven't read without reading the book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read?

Do you read me?

Posted by: majarosh on October 14, 2007 at 9:51 PM | PERMALINK

I've forgotten what you've written on this subject--your note was so long!

Posted by: Anon on October 14, 2007 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK

If you guys are having trouble now, just wait till you hit 50! I actually forgot my last name for a few nanoseconds while signing a credit card slip a few weeks ago.

Posted by: nepeta on October 14, 2007 at 10:54 PM | PERMALINK

Robert: I get lost easily too. I have a lousy grasp of spatial relationships in general. I'm pretty good with numbers, though! Among many other things, that's why I'm pretty sure I'm left-brained.

(To the extent that the whole left-right brain thing is even valid in the first place, that is.)

Posted by: Kevin Drum on October 14, 2007 at 11:40 PM | PERMALINK

franklyO writes, "My reaction to this comment is that, well, you know, I think I come very close to having forgotten more than I ever knew about everything. There's just the tiniest bit more about any given subject that I've remembered than I've forgotten."

How could you possibly know how much you've forgotten? And if you did know how much you've forgotten, wouldn't that mean you remembered it?
And if you forget something once and remember it later, does it still count as part of how much you've forgotten or is it a zero sum loss?

Posted by: majarosh on October 15, 2007 at 12:27 AM | PERMALINK

I remember impressions from books or movies or TV shows, but rarely details like names or events, and I'm glad to see I'm not the only one. It gets really bad when I try to keep up with TV shows, but I can't remember what's going on from week to week.

Posted by: Sara on October 15, 2007 at 12:35 AM | PERMALINK

How could you possibly know how much you've forgotten?

I can, for example, open books I once knew exceedingly well, and remember virtually nothing from them. For example, I can peruse a book of mathematics, know perfectly well I once upon a time understood and remembered every last detail of a proof contained therein, and be incapable of recalling even the most basic concepts it utilized.

Now, I may be able to relearn it more quickly. Yet I can also safely say that in a very important sense I have forgotten it, because I can no longer do without significant effort what I once was able to do easily: reproduce the proofs at will and from memory.

And of course mathematics is just one example.

Posted by: frankly0 on October 15, 2007 at 1:05 AM | PERMALINK

I read Effinger's When Gravity Fails. I didn't like the book and it left my personal library fairly quickly. Thinking back on the story now, I can only remember a few scenes. I don't remember the overall plot, but I retain the locale. Maybe I should read the book again. I remember I didn't like it because the characters' reactions at the end of the book were opposed to how I had expected them to react.

Posted by: ph47f3 on October 15, 2007 at 1:42 AM | PERMALINK

What happened to Wilbur Smith? Did he start reading Harry Potter or something?

Posted by: Luther on October 15, 2007 at 1:55 AM | PERMALINK

You don't have Montaigne's excuse, Kevin: he was most probably reading boring philosophical, political and religious books, which were pretty much the only reading-matter available at the time. Had he lived long enough to read "Don Quixote," I doubt he would have forgotten it.

Perhaps though your forgetfulness is a function of your preference for genre fiction, the formulaic nature of which colludes with your tendency to forget any particular instance of the genre.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on October 15, 2007 at 3:06 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin confirms what I've always thought: those who go through the most books get nothing from them. I may only read a few books a year, but I absorb them. Kevin and people like him effectively read none.

Posted by: Zak on October 15, 2007 at 3:24 AM | PERMALINK

The great Irish writer Flann O'Brien, writing under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen, came up with a service for people who wanted to appear well-read without having actually read anything. It included thoughtful comments scribbled in the margin, old ticket stubs used as bookmarks and, for those who could afford it, heartfelt inscriptions by the author. He then branched into providing similar services, using ventriloquists, for those who wanted to appear smart while out in public; that did not work out as expected. Worth buying a copy of "The Best of Myles," which you won't regret or forget.

Posted by: Henry on October 15, 2007 at 4:56 AM | PERMALINK

Oh my god... I'm a normal person!
And I thought I was on a straight course to Alzheimer's...
I forget everything about all books, both the ones I love and the ones I don't. What a relief... Thank you :)

Posted by: Monica on October 15, 2007 at 5:34 AM | PERMALINK

Thought some readers might enjoy this related poem by Billy Collins:


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Billy Collins

Posted by: Stefan Markey on October 15, 2007 at 8:28 AM | PERMALINK


Perhaps your memory of your mastery of math is mercifully mistaken.

Posted by: majarosh on October 15, 2007 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

Have a look at the recent book "Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife" by Cathryn Jakobsen Ramin. She found herself having the same problem (which I of course never suffer from), but had enough gray matter left to actually look into what can be done. Then she tried all these therapies on herself! She found that Provigil was of some help, but the best thing was just to eat right, exercise, and talk to people instead of computer screens. At least, that's what I remember her saying...

Posted by: jlredford on October 15, 2007 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

But the real question is, will you remember in 6 months that you are Montaigne-esque? I somehow doubt it.

Posted by: The Critic on October 15, 2007 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the "sieve-like memory of books" statement. It's one reason I don't read as much as I should.
I can read articles in The Washington Monthly and forget equally as well.
I have found that audio books are my best vehicle for things I truly want to read / hear. I doubt my retention is any better, but I become completely immersed. I can not read blogs, carry on a short conversation or even look ot a window or I go instantly deaf to the voices in my head. Women seem to be able to read a book, watch / listen to TV and do something else at the same time. I'm jealous of that attribute, but it really goes back to that hunter-gatherer thing or so I've convinced myself.

Posted by: rik @ work on October 15, 2007 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

I read a lot of mysteries and used to be able to remember "who done it" and why, even years later. But now I can often read the same book twice and not remember the ending, although I will remember various scenes and plot points. I attribute it to my life being so much more complicated these days. Any maybe also to the sheer number of books I've read, easily in the thousands. For years I read four or more books a week... maybe my brain is just running out of space.

Posted by: lisa on October 15, 2007 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

rik @ work: Women seem to watch tv and read a book at the same time? Anecdotal evidence, my friend. I am a woman and it drives me crazy to have music on --- particularly with words --- while I'm trying to put something together on the computer, while my husband much prefers to work with his music playing.

kevin: When I did the right brain/left brain thing I got the emotional side --- see I've already forgotten which was which --- unless I had just been reading text. But I have a good spatial abilities and also a memory like a sieve.

Many's the time I have watched Jeopardy and noted that not only am I mediocre at it, but I couldn't afford the humiliation of a program. What if they had the topic constitutional law --- which I have taught three times? Because unless I've taught it in the last six months, you can bet I won't be able to generate the name of a single court case.

It's also annoying to know that my favorite philosopher is David Hume, and to know that this is because I did not find holes in his philosophy, but to be unable to provide any further details concerning just what that philosophy is composed of.

Posted by: catherineD on October 15, 2007 at 6:36 PM | PERMALINK

Same thing happened to me- was so spacey it would have been alarming but for the spaciness. Then I had to stop cholesterol medication due to muscle pains- voila- able to think/remember/etc again; seems mentation requires a certain amount of cholesterol!

Posted by: glenn on October 15, 2007 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

Um..., what do you expect if your preferred mode of reading is skimming? Seriously - I don't understand that approach to reading. To enjoy a good book is to get lost in it, there is no choice to be made of the type of attention paid to the text, one is simply engulfed. Even middling genere fiction can have that effect, I thought that was the point.

Posted by: Bill on October 16, 2007 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

Sportspeople are, are not our Rolemodels

Posted by: virtual on October 24, 2007 at 8:05 PM | PERMALINK



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