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Reading and Remembering: Does it matter if we just ... forget?

an open book rests on a pillow on a bed with a blue stripe duvet cover, with a shelf of books in the background

Does anyone else remember comprehension exercises from their time at primary school? In your brightly illustrated textbook there would be a short story or informative article, which you'd have to carefully read all the way through, and then answer questions on what you'd just read, trying not to re-read the text if possible. I'm definitely revealing my nerdy younger self here when I say that I LOVED these comprehension tasks. But now, the days of colourful textbooks and gold stars are over, but the love of reading has stuck by me. This year, I set myself a goal of reading 24 books in 2018, which nicely works out at two per month. To my delight I smashed that goal a couple of months ago, so I have upped my book goal to 36, which I'm well on my way to achieving.

But ok Abbey, what the hell have childhood comprehension exercises got to do with your current reading goal? Hold your horses, folks. I'm getting there. What first caused me to make the link was having a conversation with a friend about a book that I read at the beginning of the year. She had finished the book much more recently and naturally remembered it very well, while I had ticked it off my list in January or February. We were able to have a great chat about the book, things we liked and disliked, and which characters we most empathised with. However, during this conversation something really hit me - I didn't remember the finer details of the book all that well at all.

black and silver book on a bookshelf

Sometimes I forget something as fundamental as the main character's name. I wracked my brains for ages when a question came up on a TV gameshow about the name of the little girl in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I read that book a couple of years ago and I thought that it had really stuck with me, but I had to question that when I couldn't even recall one of the main character's names! On other occasions, with books I've read in the past, I can remember absolutely nothing of the storyline at all. I recognise the cover, think "oh yeah, I read that a while ago" but couldn't tell you anything more.

And this has made me think - am I actually damaging my experience of reading by packing in so many books? If I couldn't complete a simple primary school level comprehension test about what I've read, am I failing at reading? What's the point in reading something if we don't remember it?

black and silver book on bookshelf

Well, after giving this some considerable thought, I have concluded that reading isn't all about remembering. You don't have to be able to recall all of the minute details of a book for it to have had an impact on you. For example, perhaps reading a novel written from a perspective that is totally alien to you helped you to see a problem from another person's eyes. Perhaps it introduced you to a new way of thinking about something. Or perhaps it made you think about a topic you'd never even considered before. These impactful experiences just as valuable, if not more so, than remembering a character's name, the setting of the story, or the exact details of what someone was wearing in chapter two. 

I also think that the in-the-moment escapism that you gain from picking up a book and entering another world is so valuable. Being whisked off to another realm of fantasy is sometimes just what you need, whether it's for self-care after a bad day, or to help you switch off and get to sleep at night. Just because something doesn't change your life entirely, doesn't mean that it's not worth doing - I certainly think that this applies to reading.

n open book rests on a pillow on a bed with a blue stripe duvet cover, with a shelf of books in the background

I've been prattling on about reading and remembering for some time now (sorry not sorry), but what if you're reading this thinking "well, I really do want to remember what I've read - how do I go about it?!" Like with the comprehension exercises I mentioned earlier, I think that the best way to remember something is by writing about it. I find writing blog posts summarising my recent reads to be a great way of making novels stick in my mind, so I would heartily recommend this to anyone else. Even if the post just sits in your drafts getting longer and longer without anyone else reading it, it'll still be valuable for you! And on that note, here are a few books that I really want to remember.

Books that I definitely want to remember

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I picked up a copy of I Am Pilgrim based on a glowing recommendation from my good friend Hels. The novel tells the story of Scott Murdoch, an American intelligence agent who has just left the spying trade - or so he thinks. Thanks to a murder of an anonymous woman and a plot to destroy the US with a truly deadly weapon, Scott (aka Pilgrim) is back in business. The novel is very long (800+ pages) but it will keep you gripped all the way through - reading it was honestly like watching a movie! Despite its length, the book doesn't drag and every detail helps to build a totally believable and immersive story. In the end, all of the cases that Pilgrim has to investigate tie into each other in a totally unexpected way, so it will keep you guessing to the very end! This is an amazing thriller than really sold the genre to me.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

You'll start noticing a theme here when I tell you that this book was another choice inspired by Hels! This book was the first read selected for her Blogger Book Club and I read it within the space of 24 hours. The Light Between Oceans follows Tom, a war survivor turned lighthouse keeper. He takes a job remote island of Janus, off the coast of Australia, and meets Isabel, who becomes his wife. One fateful day, a baby and the body of a man wash up in a boat on the shore of the island.  Isabel thinks the child is a gift from god, sent after she was unable to have a child of her own, but Tom is a lot more uncertain about keeping the child. As the story unfolds, the little girl begins to grow up, with heartbreaking consequences. This book will definitely make you cry - it is powerfully written with really compelling characters, but read with tissues in hand!

In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

I challenge anybody who is opposed to refugees being granted asylum in this country to read this book and tell me that they still feel the same way. Like the previous book, this one will really break your heart. The central character is Enaiatollah Akbari, who we follow from the tender age of 10. Fearing for his life under Taliban rule, Enaiat is taken by his mother out of the Afghani village he calls home, with the hope of smuggling him out of the country. But as she cannot travel with him, Enaiat is left alone to fend for himself, earning what he can in atrocious conditions to secure passage to Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Greece, before finally ending up in Italy. The details of Enaiat's journey, including an attempt to reach Europe over thunderous seas on a rapidly sinking dinghy, and the cruelty he faces at the hands of people smugglers are guaranteed to haunt you, but the kindness and friendship he encounters in some cases will give you hope.

Does forgetting what you've read bother you? Or is escapism the most important factor for you when reading? Please join the discussion down below, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Until next time,

A x