Wednesday, October 6, 2010

forgetting what you read

I was thinking about exactly this today, and Freakonomics referenced an essay on the subject.

In high school I knew I was awful at remembering details from the books and stories assigned in literature class. I aced the concept questions and essays on literature exams and bombed the specifics. But I figured that was because I hated most of what we were forced to read; I could certainly remember the stuff I wanted to remember, right?

A couple years later, I realized that even the one book that I truly loved from literature class was 100% gone from my brain. I know the title, and author, and that's it. I think maybe part of it was in Arizona? I'd have to ask my roommate, the fictionphile with 80% of her brain devoted to those fictional details I like to believe are a waste of neurons...

So over time I've tried to figure out the answers to the questions Stephen Dubner raises. The writing I remember is nonfiction, pure and simple. Specifically, conceptual nonfiction (ie physics, not stamp collecting).

Also, since I started writing down impressions of every book I read several years ago, I've noticed a dramatic improvement in my memory for all kinds of books. Maybe not all the plot details, but everything I like to believe is actually important to understanding the essence of the book.

I think the unifying characteristic is mental reanalysis. Conceptual nonfiction is automatically thought-provoking (to me at least) and begs for interpretation within a large organized framework. Those frameworks stick really well to grey matter. (But species of flowers or authors of economics papers? There's no hope.) And fiction? It seems that intentionally evaluating strengths and weaknesses of books and comparing them to others is enough analysis and structure to commit them to memory.

The bigger puzzle to me is how other people's brains must work differently from my own to have such different memories. Can fictional plots really be the things that someone's subconscious is primarily preoccupied with, rather than categorization and synthesis of, well, everything? Or something else entirely that I can't fathom?

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