It’s Okay to “Forget” What You Read

“Maybe if I use my finger I’ll retain more of it…”

I write a lot about reading, and one of the most common questions I get is

“What’s the point of reading if I just forget it all anyway?”

Paul Graham, essayist and founder of startup incubator Y Combinator, asks much the same question in his essay How You Know:

“I’ve read Villehardouin’s chronicle of the Fourth Crusade at least two times, maybe three. And yet if I had to write down everything I remember from it, I doubt it would amount to much more than a page. Multiply this times several hundred, and I get an uneasy feeling when I look at my bookshelves. What use is it to read all these books if I remember so little from them?”

Many of us feel this near-existential fear that we might “lose” what wisdom we extract from the books we read.

Such fears are unfounded.

First of all, if you love books, memory is never a problem. If I read for pure pleasure, what harm is there in forgetting? I get to enjoy the same wonderful book over and over again — for the book-lover, what better gift is there than forgetfulness?

But many of us read books for reasons other than pleasure. We want to get something from the books we read.

There is much written on retaining what you read (note it, connect it, summarize it, teach it, yawn…), but Paul Graham, I think, has something new and interesting to say.

Let’s take a look.

Forgetting Is Not Forgetting

Reflecting on the forgotten pages of Villehardouin’s Chronicles of the Crusades, Graham comes to a realization.

Although he has forgotten such details as the facts, dates and events, he has retained something far more important:

“The place to look for what I learned from Villehardouin’s chronicle is not what I remember from it, but my mental models of the crusades, Venice, medieval culture, siege warfare, and so on. …the harvest of reading is not so miserably small as it might seem.”

What we get from books is not just a collection of names, dates and events stored in our minds like files in a computer. Books also change, via our mental models, the very reality that we perceive.

You can think of mental models as psychological lenses that color and shape what we see. Some of this is genetic or cultural (Americans focus on very different parts of a picture than the Japanese do), but much of our perception is also shaped by experience — and experience includes the books we read.

“Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.”

Take Sherlock Holmes, for example. Aside from small shards of memory (speckled bands, cocaine and big dogs come to mind), I don’t remember much from the Holmes stories.

I don’t remember who killed whom or what Sherlock did or said(aside from quips of “Elementary, my dear Watson!”), but I did get something from those stories, something more than fact. They taught me how to think.

Now, let us take another step.

How does this idea of mental models help us to read better?

I. Read for the Models

No, not that model…

Not all books were made equal, and neither were the pages of any particular book.

When we read, certain notable phrases, concepts and ideas (what Flaubert called “erections of the mind”) stand out more clearly from the others.

Our “psychological lenses” filter the books we read, selecting and highlighting what is most relevant at the time.

Though our eyes may pass over all of the words and our hands may flip through all of the pages, what we read is never the entire book — our mental models make sure of that.

When I read, I have learned to trust this intuition.

When something leaps at me, there’s a good chance it’s important. So I make a note in the margin of the page. This is an act of conversation with the author, and the very act of doing so creates a connection in my mind which, in turn, updates the models in my head.

Isaac Newton’s marginalia (Source)

There’s nothing new to this practice, of course. The markings are called marginalia, and readers have probably been doing it as long as we’ve had books.

II. Read It Again

“A good book gets better at the second reading. A great book at the third. Any book not worth rereading isn’t worth reading.” -Nassim Taleb

Now, a second tip.

If our brain is constantly “upgrading” its own mental models, then it makes sense that it never sees reality in quite the same way. This also means that no book is quite the same when you read it again.

Graham (with more dodgy hacker metaphors) continues:

“For example, reading and experience are usually “compiled” at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase “already read” seems almost ill-formed.”

Perhaps there is a lot of wisdom in the advice of Seneca, who, two thousand years ago, wrote the following:

“The person of delicate digestion nibbles at this and that; when the diet is too varied, though, food does not nourish but only upsets the stomach. So read always from authors of proven worth; and if ever you are inclined to turn aside to others, return afterward to the previous ones. Obtain each day some aid against poverty, something against death, and likewise against other calamities. And when you have moved rapidly through many topics, select one to ponder that day and digest.”

When I am done with my wanderings through the library stacks, I always return home to the same few authors. And, no matter how many times I return, I always find they have something new to say.