Remembering What One Reads

In DH Lawrence‘s The Rainbow–on which I will soon pen a few thoughts here–in Chapter 12, ‘Shame,’ Ursula wonders, overcome by tedium at studying “English, Latin, French, Mathematics and History:”

Why should one remember the things one read?

Why indeed? Ursula’s question, of course, is directed at the unquestionable tedium and seeming futility of an education that only in “odd streaks” provides her a “poignant sense of acquisition and enrichment and enlarging,” but I want to try and think about it in terms of reading in general: Is it such a bad thing if one cannot remember all that one reads?

Here is an experience, familiar, I would think, to many readers. The book ends, the last page is turned, we put it on our shelves, acknowledge the pleasure it has given us, and move on. Little of what we read stays with us; a few days later, we are only able to vaguely describe the details of the book–if a novel, perhaps the particulars of the central narrative; if an analytical work, perhaps those of the argument. We feel mortified: Are these the ‘senior moments’ we were warned about? Is decrepitude, finally, here? Are we lacking in ‘reading comprehension’? The recapitulation that should be so closely associated with the pleasure that we felt while we were reading appears to have gone missing; why aren’t the book’s contours available for articulate recall?

This anxiety finds its grounding, perhaps, in a couple of dimensions. An educational culture of standardized tests might have convinced us ‘comprehension’ is the same as ‘recall’, and we might, too, have forgotten the most straightforward pleasures of reading.  In the former, we are unable to trust ourselves that being unable to remember particulars does not straightforwardly translate to ‘complete failure to comprehend central narrative/argument and internalize, store, and possibly reaccess on provision of appropriate stimulus at later points in time.’ This is all pretty gruesomely instrumental, to be honest; a ‘successful reading experience’ becomes one that we are able to ‘deploy’, ‘use’, ‘bring to bear’ on some act of practical cognition. The ‘value’ of reading then becomes measured by its ‘utility.’

So it is to the latter dimension that we should rather turn. The act of reading is pleasurable in itself; it is not a means to an end, it is an end of its own. While reading, we are–in the way that we were instructed by the  enthusiastic reading-boosters of our childhood, our parents and teachers–transported. The encounter with the book is refuge, journey and scholarship all at once. (I acknowledge that ‘scholarship’ is a rather portentous term for some, if not many, of our reading encounters!) While reading, for that period of time, we enter into dialogues and conversations with several selves–the author and ourselves, at the bare minimum–in several registers. The end of the reading of a book is not, and should not, be occasion for ‘outcomes assessment’; it might be more appropriate to mark it with farewells to a companion that is able to–for the hours that we let it–remove us from a world ‘full of care.’

5 comments on “Remembering What One Reads

  1. 7theaven says:

    Well, you should remember for one, to always remember it’s value even long after you’ve read it

  2. Varun.C says:

    Yes, but after a while you’re pained when realizing the difference between remembering that ‘you liked it’ and remembering what all you liked in it. And if it affecting us only on a subliminal level, then is there nothing beyond instant gratification.

    And to be fair to the connotation of ‘comprehension’ that educational culture has inflicted upon us, don’t we feel happy when a Shakespeare quote or a line of poetry comes to mind, all of a sudden when you were least expecting it?

    • Samir Chopra says:


      I agree; the latter is indeed useful; I didn’t just want to take comfort in that alone. As for ‘instant gratification’, surely a sustained act of reading isn’t that!

  3. […] As I noted in these pages a while ago, we often do not remember what we read. An acknowledgment of this fact can provoke considerable anxiety as one ages: time is speeding by; I must savor each moment; and yet, I am spending them in a pursuit which leaves no tangible trace. Then, as I noted, we should pay attention to the fact that: […]

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