I Don’t Remember What Happened in the Books I’ve Read, and I Don’t Care

Since I started reading more than 50 books a year I stopped remembering what actually happened in them. Character names, plot points, who did what to whom and why, these things float into the ether within weeks of finishing a book.

Every single time. Without fail.

I read The Orenda when it came out a few years ago and absolutely loved it. I mean, I loved that book. It’s one of my favorite pieces of Canadian fiction. Now, I can’t even tell you the names of the characters. Not a single one. I could pick them out of a lineup, sure, but as for instant recall, I got nuthin’.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay is my third favorite book of all time. I can name two characters in it off the top of my head. That’s insane.

This is something that’s bothered me for quite a while. Am I reading too many books? Am I not absorbing them the way I should be? Do I need to read fewer books, more slowly, to really squeeze the juice out of them? I was starting to think so.

And then I listened to the August 21st episode of The Watch podcast, “Critiquing ‘Game of Thrones’ and Previewing the Fall TV Season”. On it, TV critic extraordinaire Andy Greenwald talked about how the details of a piece of art aren’t important, or, at least, they’re less important than the feeling that piece of art leaves you with.

Instantly, I felt better.

“We don’t really care about whodunnit, why they dunnit, the details. We joke all the time about James Crumley, one of our favorite novelists … I don’t know what happens in those books and I’ve read them five times. I don’t care. It’s about the characters, it’s about the vibe. It’s about the overall experience of reading this book.”

Andy’s right. The details are absolutely secondary to the way a book makes you feel, how it makes you think, how it changes you once you’ve read it. This reminded me about one of my favorite scenes from last year’s Captain Fantastic. In it, Viggo Mortenson’s character asks his young daughter what the book she’s reading is about.

Father: What are you reading?
Daughter: Lolita.
Father: I didn’t assign that book.
Daughter: I’m skipping ahead.
Father: And?
Daughter: It’s interesting.
Father: Interesting is a non-word. You know you’re supposed to avoid it. Be specific.
Daughter: …It’s disturbing.
Father: More specific.
Daughter: Can I just read?
Father: After you give us your analysis thus far.
Daughter: There’s this old man who loves this girl, and she’s only 12 years old
Father: That’s the plot.

She then goes on to describe what the book is about. How it made her feel, how she sympathizes with this character even though he is a pedophile even though she hates him at the same time.

That’s what reading Lolita is about. It’s not about who said what or who did this or that. That’s just plot. And plot is just the thread between the stuff we actually care about.

So even if I don’t remember the details, I don’t care. I remember the important things, like how I felt, how I changed, and how it made me think.

11 thoughts on “I Don’t Remember What Happened in the Books I’ve Read, and I Don’t Care

  1. This post: it’s me.

    Without peeking, The Orenda stars…. the Jesuit dude (Christophe??) the Haudenosaunee girl who’s name I can’t remember, and the Wendat guy who’s name I can’t remember. And there was an old lady name goose something or other????

    I agree with everything! Plots aren’t as important, and, they allow you to have better rereading expereiences. I think this is why I can’t get into genre fiction, everything serves the plot, which is the least important thing. Also the reason I can’t relate to “this book is important because it includes X” where X is some timely social issue. Do. Not. Care. Tell me about the writing, damn it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My terrible memory annoys me in every circumstance, save one: during a re-read. “Read it again, for the first time!”

      You hit the nail on the head with genre fiction. It’s very plot driven. That’s also why YA does nothing for me most of the time. It’s usually about what happens, and rarely about what it means.


    1. Me too. When I started writing about books 5 years ago it was partly to document what I thought about everything I was consuming. It’s so easy for things to just go up in smoke. There’s only a finite amount of space in our brains for this stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was just faced with this recently when a visitor to my blog asked a question about a book I reviewed in March. I loved the book, I recommended the book but I no longer had any memory of the details. I felt bad, as if I was doing a disservice to a book I loved, but it’s just not possible.

    So, I’m in an uneasy space of feeling disloyal to a book and knowing full well this is the reality. I’m accepting that the best I can do is hold onto the feelings the book gave me and let the rest go. Because I’m not going to stop reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well the first thing I think you need to do is lose any feelings of disloyalty, Catherine. It’s not your fault that the details eventually fade away. That’s just the nature of details: there are only so many we can hold. And if we can all forget them so easily, it’s clear that they aren’t really what’s important at the end of the day.

      It’s always funny recommending books. I will often implore someone to read a book I LOVED, but I can rarely explain anything about it. “Just read it,” I’ll say. You’d think after years of blogging I’d be better at this, haha.


  3. Oh THANK YOU! This is exactly what I needed to hear because, like you, I was beginning to think I was losing it. Back in the day, before Goodreads both enriched my life with a social platform based entirely around books, and caused me a ton of undue stress for how much I am actually reading or the ratings of every book I choose to read, I felt like I remembered everything. I remember telling everyone about my favourite books (because there were fewer) and now, when I look at my favourites shelf, I couldn’t tell you the main characters of most of them. I’m looking at it as we speak.. Sutton .. he’s in love with.. a girl.. the whole book.. annnnd the name is gone. But do I ever remember reading the conclusion of that book and feeling my heart break in my chest.
    I am breathing a deep sigh of relief that this is a normal thing. Also, I’ve been dragging my heels on reading The Orenda but I really, really need to do it.
    Such a great post!


  4. I only half-heartily agree. The article does a great job at stating the principal importance of remembering, “…how I felt, how I changed, and how it made me think”. So we agree that that is the chief importance. But it doesn’t follow from that, in my opinion, that therefore you shouldn’t care about forgetting details; just because the details are not of primary importance, it doesn’t mean they have no importance.

    Why can’t you have both? I don’t mean have both with every book you read, but the ones you love. Why wouldn’t you also delight in knowing the little things or the details of things you love?


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