Forgotten Books

One of the comments made frequently by reviewers is how a particular book lingered with them long after they reached the final page. I’ve certainly had that experience with a few novels (Germinal, Petals of Blood, Crime and Punishment, The Heart of the Matter come to mind as prime examples).

Most novels for me however are more transitory experiences. I enjoy them at the time and since the general sensation of pleasure does remain, I am glad to have read them. Some I might even re-read at some point. But I don’t continue to think deeply about them in terms of their message or theme for much longer than that immediate experience.

And then there are those that I cannot honestly recall ever having read. I only realise the fact when I open it again or find it at the back of the shelves. They’re not awful otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered keeping them. They’re just things I allowed to pass before my eyes in a sense, something that whiled away the time but never really engaged my brain beyond the superficial level.

The ObservationsI came across one of these yesterday while doing a bit of a clean up of the bookshelf and desperately hoping to find some gaps so I could fit in my new purchases. It was The Observations by Jane Harris.   Instantly I recalled that I had planned to read this last year but never got around to it. I was just putting back on the shelf when a moment of doubt began creeping in. I read the synopsis on the back. It definitely sounded familiar. But then that might just have been because I’ve looked at it many many times in the year or so since it first came into the house (deciding each time that I wasn’t in the mood). I started flicking through the pages, skim reading a paragraph here and there. It didn’t take long before reality sunk in. I have indeed already read this.

But when and where was another puzzle.  Until I started this blog I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. A quick search revealed that I was reading it on November 1 last year, finding it “a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. I must have finished it otherwise I wouldn’t still have in my possession but I can’t have rated it highly because I never wrote a full review. Clearly it didn’t make of an impact on me. In fact if someone asked me what it’s about I would struggle to say more than it’s about a maid, a mistress who makes very odd requests and the suspicious death of a previous servant. The rest is blank shall we say.

I know this isn’t an isolated example of a book that I’ve forgotten I ever read. I used to read lots of crime fiction and frequently took books home from the library only to realise half way through that the plot sounded rather familiar.

If my memory is this bad, I have no hope of emulating the reader who has used her Goodreads account to record every book she can remember reading, including those from her childhood. It’s taken her four years to get to 1,000 books. She clearly has a much better memory than I do – I think I would struggle to get even half way to that number. I certainly don’t remember everything I read as a child.

The article she wrote for The Guardian doesn’t say how she managed this extraordinary feat. The quickest route would be to look up the various category lists or author lists, scan them and add titles to your ‘read’ shelf. But she clearly went beyond that since she also says in her article that of the 1,000 she enjoyed only about 700. Which means that it wasn’t a case of recognising a cover and thinking ‘oh i read that one’ but actually recalling what her reaction was.

Just to put this into perspective. I have 200 books on my “Read” shelf at Goodreads  which is only a small fraction of what I’ve read throughout my life.  But knowing which books I’ve left off my list is tough. I know for example that I’ve read a lot of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine but looking at the titles although they are familiar I can’t be sure thats because I read them or have just seen them in book shops so often. Even when I know for sure I read a particular title, trying to recall my level of enjoyment is a further challenge particularly given Goodreads’ five point scoring system.  I enjoyed Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and A Town Like Alice but would they both score a five or was one better than the other?. I have no idea. It’s enough of a problem trying to deal with the last 40 years of reading, going back into childhood would for me be nigh on impossible.

Am I a lone voice here with my memory deficiency? How much do you recall of what you read? Do you have the same issues with forgotten books??

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on February 8, 2015, in Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. I think I fall somewhere inbetween you and Beulah. I could probably add hundreds of books that I read during my childhood to Goodreads and at some point probably will – I have a good memory for authors and I read a lot of those books multiple times/still own them, albeit in storage in my Dad’s loft. I know I won’t remember every one – I read a handful of Cheerleaders, Point Horror, Point Crime, Babysitters Club, not to mention Mills and Boon, but goodness only knows which ones.

    But as for remembering anything about the content of the books I read? Generally very little, which is why I have my blog, Goodreads _and_ a spreadsheet to keep track these days. I’m a bit of an organiser so it keeps me happy, but it doesn’t really replace actually remembering what I liked about that book that, like you, I kept so must have liked. Memory is weird.

  2. My faulty memory is why I started the blog, Karen. So, I can list down and elaborate on what I have read, and what I liked and disliked about that book. Since I started blogging, there have been very few accidental rereads.

  3. Too funny, Karen. I was doing the same as you in January – sorting books to make space – and I picked up one particular book. If it’s on those shelves then I’ve read it but this book rang no bell AT ALL. I’ve noticed a couple of others in shelves over the years like that. I started a Books Read database in 1998, and in that I write a one-line description/summary/assessment. Then I started Library Thing about 2007, and my blog in 2009, and I did join GoodReads but I don’t keep that one up to date. Too many places to record books. I like LibraryThing because you can export your list to a spreadsheet. In LibraryThing I only record books I own (to create this inventory) whereas in my database (and now blog) I record books I’ve read.

    • I keep changing my mind about which of those platforms to stick with. GoodReads I find much easier to add books to the catalogue but Library Thing does have some good discussion groups. I didnt know about the ability to export the list though, that could indeed be very useful

      • That sounds as though I’d find it useful too – thanks for the tip!

        • its the power of blogging isn’t it – so many new things I learn just by following other people

        • Love the sound of the barcode scanner – that’d be really handy when you’ve as many books as me plus I could pretend I worked in Tesco. For an hour. Then I’m sure the novelty of “working in Tesco” would rapidly wear off – no offence to any Tesco employees!*
          (*Other supermarkets are available!)

      • I know! I tend not to engage in discussions on any of them so that’s not an issue for me. By the time I blog, read other blogs, go to my monthly reading and Jane Austen groups, and talk with friends (well one or two in particular) over lunch, I tend to be discussion-ed out! So it’s really the record purpose I use it for, hence my preference for LT’s export function.

        • I did join one of the LT groups and got totally overwhelmed when I saw how fast some people were reading nd reviewing. I had to get out of it just for my sanity

      • Oh, and I bought a little barcode reader from LT so I could bulk enter my books at one stage – though I still haven’t completed that process.

  4. This happens to me more than i care to admit. It is part of the reason why i started my blog – to help me remember the books I’ve read. And as you say, the problem is, it only covers the books I’ve read since i started the blog.

  5. I can only echo what others have said. The more I engage with a book (by blogging about it, writing an article about it, teaching it, or whatever), the more likely I am to remember it. I enjoy reading mysteries, but those are the ones I am most likely to forget. I usually remember if I’ve read a book or not, and whether or not I liked it, but most of the details are forgotten. This happens with movies as well.

    • That rationale should be something I use more Debra – it might actually get me to write all the reviews I still have pending from last year. Movies I also struggle with which results in more than one heated discussion with my husband…..

  6. It’s funny you chose The Observations as I too have it, and have definitely read a considerable amount of it, but I can’t recall the ending at all. So I possibly abandoned it mid-read (which I’ve managed to stop doing now) or the end of the book was utterly unmemorable. As that was maybe 3 years ago, I’ll probably end up having to read the whole thing again (I’ll be really angry if it turns out I did finish it!) When it comes to authors with quite a number of books like Rendell/Vine, I too struggle to recall what I’ve read – although I do know I stopped reading the Wexford books at the one before Simisola. I’m PRETTY sure I’ve read the rest, certainly of the Vine books as I prefer them, but I wouldn’t be able to recall any plot points!

    • Thats exactly my feeling too – I’m PRETTY sure but not confident about many crime fiction titles. Maybe its because I don’t read those with anything like the same level of attention I give to more literary works.

  7. I am with others here. I often forget whodunits, but love reading them. I also find that the more I process a book by writing about it or discussing it with others, the better chance I have remembering it. If I go deep with it, it stays with me. But then there are some books I truly don’t care enough about to remember — or even spend much time thinking about.

    • It does seem that writing about it pushes you to recall it more and – for me at least – I find I often have to go back and read some sections again just to do the review.

  8. it’s actually one of the main reasons I started my book blog: I realized I remembered a book much better by the mere fact of taking notes while reading and writing a review. Even if I don’t go back to my notes or review, I remember the book, because I took time to write something on it

    • I’ve never got into the habit of writing notes while reading – the most I do is put a post it note on a passage that strikes me as interesting or evocative. Often though when I go back to them I can’t remember what it was that caught my attention

  9. I relate to this post! I had such a hard time remembering the books I’ve read that about a decade ago (before Librarything or Goodreads) I bought notebooks in which I would keep track of the titles, authors, & a supershort synapsis of the books I read. I was so sick of forgetting them! Or mentioning a certain book, than realizing I knew Ai had read it, but couldn’t remember a thing about it.

    • Oh that is way too organised and systematic for me Tamara. Do you still do that or has the blog and Goodreads etc taken over. I imagine it would be more enjoyable to look back through a notebook than just look the list up on line

  10. I think that the kiss of death for a writer is flicking through the pages of a book and not being able to recall if I’ve read it or not.

    Like you I’ve forgotten a lot of the books I’ve read. Only the best and the worst remain. I usually remember if I’ve read a book when I see it but for lots of them I don’t remember the plot.

    We can’t remember everything.

  11. The main reason why I started reviewing books on Amazon was so that I had a record of what I’ve read, and what I thought of it, as I have an awful memory for names (this appears to extend to book titles too) There is nothing more annoying than reading a bit of a book only to realise you’ve read it before. Having said that, like you I enjoyed The Observations but can’t remember much of the detail. I couldn’t possibly tell you every book I’ve ever read like the woman in your post!

  12. and as for rating systems? That’s why I no longer put stars on any reviews. I write a review to indicate whether I liked a book, but compare whether I liked Austen better than Bronte? Nah, you’re ok

    • I’ve resisted rating systems too Nordie. We have to do this in our book club and I always always struggle. Some people gave our latest book a 10 out of 10 which seemed a bit extreme to me

  13. I’ve had a similar experience recently, in that I’ve read some old reviews and thought “I’d forgotten about that book”.

    Considering how many books I’ve had on my shelves over the years – most of which I get rid of after I’ve read them – I’m surprised by how few duplicates I unconsciously pick up. Consciously yes (The Crimson Petal for example, after I gave my original copy away and I saw another copy for £5 or so….) but that’s another story.

    Despite having read a large number of crime novels over the years, some repeatedly, I am awful at remembering “whodunnit”. Therefore I am quite capable of reading a book several times, knowing I technically know the criminal and the dénouement, but still able to talk some level of pleasure from the act.

  14. I love Goodreads and my blog because they improved my retention. A little. If I write a full review, I definitely remember the book longer. If I just give it a star rating on Goodreads and don’t write anything, I’m much less likely to remember. But, at least, it keeps me from accidentally re-reading things.

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