What is the point of reading?

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

James Collins mentions in a very interesting essay called The Plot Escapes Me in the New York Times of September 17th that he often forgets about the contents of books he’d read. It got me thinking about my own reading habits and he is right. The thought of forgetting what I’ve read is appalling for me, yet it happens constantly. It’s not just the books that didn’t leave much of an impression. It also happens with books that I either loved or loathed.

Case in point: Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

I first read it during my study abroad in Daegu, South Korea in 2004. I guess it was somewhere in April, because I remember that the weather was starting to get better after a cold March. Privacy was hard to come by in that period – having to share a small room with a roommate – and it was one of those days when I felt down and I desperately needed to be alone, away from other people. I just started to wander around the city, walking around with no real destination in mind, no idea of where I was heading. After a while, I came across a quiet little part on a hill, and apart from the occasional stroller, that was no one there. So I sat down on the bench and started reading. I remember sitting there in peace reading, captivated by the story. It is without doubt one of my favourite books I’ve ever read.

In early 2008, I decided to reread the book, and I imagined it would be a bit like meeting up with an old friend again, where we would bring up some fond old memories together, but instead it was like finding out that you don’t really remember that much of that person anymore. I kept encountering parts of the stories which I realized I’ve forgotten already. For example, I remembered the tiger on the lifeboat, and had some vague recollections of the hyena and the zebra, but I completely forgot about the orangutan until I read about her again. The most shocking thing however occurred when I reached the part on the meerkat island. I had absolutely no recollections of having ever read that. None whatsoever. Maybe it’s because I didn’t like that part at all, so I forgot about that. Still, it’s just plain weird that those scenes were apparently completely wiped out from my memory.

Except for those with a photographic memory, perhaps we are forever doomed to forget what we have read. If that is the case, then what is the point of reading, as Collins also asks himself in the article. He even goes so far to say that he “didn’t actually read it (Perjury) for pleasure or its gestalt.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I tend to agree with him. I read to expand my knowledge, to learn about life, and perhaps somewhat backwards, to be able to discuss the merits and demerits of the books I’ve read. Reading for pleasure? That’s all good and well if it happens, but that’s not always the goal.

In the end, Collins doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, and he ends the article on a somewhat gloomy note:

I suppose one solution would be to use the techniques recommended in study guides for retaining reading assignments. Do not recline! First review the table of contents and index. Read actively, underlining and making notations in the text. Review what you have read, making notes (three to five pages for every hundred pages of text).

Some good ideas, surely. But “Do not recline”? Impossible.

What’s funny about this ending is that I’ve actually considered doing what he suggested. I even set up my own local wiki environment on my laptop where I can store the notes and quotes from the books I’ve read. But alas, I have to agree with him again. It is impossible. It is too time-consuming and frustrating, and it becomes a self-defeating exercise. You spend so much time trying to store the knowledge, that you do not spend nearly enough time on actually acquiring it. But maybe, just maybe, there is a simpler and more positive explanation. You see, although I undoubtedly have again forgotten some important elements of the story, I was able to remember much more about Life of Pi after the second reading,. We sometimes tend to forget that reading is also a skill, not just something we are able to pick up and do without any practice. It might be true that we keep forgetting what we read, but that just means that our reading skills are not perfected yet. Now, we most probably will never reach the perfect level – this is basically true for every other conceivable skill – but that is not the goal anyway, or it should not be. We keep on reading, not to absolutely remember every single detail, but to improve ourselves in becoming better in recognizing, learning and ultimately retaining what is important for us.

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