From the Blog

Like A Sieve

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As I have been thinning out our shelves and shelves of books, I was thinking that I was just being a sissy for being so reluctant and emotional about it. I attach sentimentality to odd items. I was always thinking I’d want to reread my books. Even the crappy ones. And if I didn’t reread them, they still sort of look nice. Because having lots of books, even if you haven’t read them, makes you look smart.

I realized, though, that I wasn’t being a sissy about getting rid of our books. I wasn’t being sentimental or even shallow about keeping the books just to look smart. I realized that maybe I wanted to keep all those books, because even if I had read them, I don’t remember what was in them. This dawned on me as I was reading a book for my book club, and I couldn’t remember it, even as I was reading it. Even in the very process of reading, I was forgetting what I read.

It was really a very interesting book, with occasional observations that made me want to throw it out the window. With each sitting, I’d finish up and immediately forgot what I read. I could give an overview of major points: Social Studies in American schools (instead of separate history, geography studies, etc) is making the country go to hell, climate change has been happening for gadzillion years, China has a lot of people in it, but India will soon have more, Islam is sweeping over Africa and Europe (this was described in the most sinister terms), Russia is really big (it’s unmanageable and also cold), and Europe will never be a real superpower because they can’t stop bickering amongst themselves, and they need the US military to protect them. That’s as much as I remember.

This book also reminded me that I really like maps. So I was excited about this book. But I wish I could remember it. I don’t retain knowledge. I’m not dumb. I can connect abstract concepts like no one’s business. But when it comes to storing knowledge, my brain is only like, a half inch deep. I’ll hang on to random details but forget where I heard them, or what their context was. So I can often sound like I know what I’m talking about. But no.

There’s got to be a name for this kind of learning, or lack of learning. I’m fascinated by lots of things. I want to know more about everything. There’s not enough time in the day to absorb it all. It’s a fleeting feeling once I KNOW something. I’m not going to know it for long. I’m going to forget.

I can’t hang on to everything. But I’ve been sorry to see the books go. Even if I’ve read them, it’s like I never knew what was in them.

I could probably build rockets if I could retain a damn shred of knowledge. Damn it.




  1. That’s interesting—I’m like that with movies. I can enjoy a movie thoroughly and then hardly remember any details about it at the end, unless I see it a second time, and then my memory for details improves hugely. Len, even though he barely remembers his mother’s birthday, can recite chapter and verse of TV shows he saw when he was 8, as well as a movie he just watched.

    With reading, I have sometimes have experience of not remembering much unless I take the time to think or talk or take notes on the book, section by section. I taught speed-reading courses one summer forever ago, and the method was to train your eyes to read faster and faster, while stopping frequently to do “tell-backs”—talking to yourself or your cat or whomever. You remember things way better when you hear yourself say them, though it’s not always worth the time (depends on the book!).

  2. Sue, I’m kind of glad to hear about this, since you are among the smart people I know.* You have a PhD, and you studied history. That is just the sort of academic knowledge that sails right through my brain. I would have loved to be a scholar, but I have this whole knowledge retention problem.

    The ONE thing I remember from European history: 1066, the Battle of Hastings, where the Duke of Normandy (who was also the king of England) lost his French holdings. And then the French language ceased to be such a major influence on the English language. That’s all I remember.

    I do tend to remember movies, as long as they make sense. I can remember visuals better than words on a page. If only they had coloring books in college.

    (I’m not disclosing who the dumb people are.)

  3. Meredith says

    I do this. What did I just read? And why did I just read it? It’s the same with TV, but with it being visual, it’s more easily remembered. But why do we watch TV? And why do I like Reality TV so much? Yet I also love documentaries, which is way more beneficial to remember.

  4. I have this same problem and I’ve always been kind of embarrassed to talk about it. I’m an avid, sometimes even prolific reader. I’ll read on nearly any subject and be fascinated by it, but then I can’t remember any of it. I’ve largely stopped reading any difficult works of literature because it just feels like work, with no reward. I’m not reading Ulysses for this reason. I read Portrait of the Artist and I couldn’t tell you a single thing about it. Same with almost every Faulkner novel. I’ve lately tried taking notes and highlighting things, which helps a little bit. Anyway, thanks for posting this, it makes me feel a little better.

  5. I’m the same way. I can remember general ideas, themes, etc, and can occasionally pull a random fact out of my ass, but otherwise I’ve got a sieve in my head.

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