Why we forget most books we read

Has it ever happened that you look at a book you’re certain you’ve read before but you can’t remember what it’s about? You may remember other ancillary details like where you bought it from or when you read it, but you don’t remember what’s in it. I have been in similar situations more often than I can remember. Recently, as I was glancing through the titles I’ve collected over the years, I came across a few books that I vaguely remember reading, the content and storyline however remained adeptly forgotten. Perturbed by this, I did a little research on ‘why’ it happens. This selective retention is completely normal and there’s a scientific explanation behind it.


Our brain only retains memories which it deems are important to us, things, or in this instance books that align with our interests, beliefs, and values and perhaps those which leave a lasting impact on us. So, the books you read but forgot – they probably didn’t interest you much.


Research shows that the manner in which information is consumed also affects our retention levels. For example, people are less likely to remember details from a book they’ve binge-read, as compared to the one they’ve read over multiple sittings. This happens because, in instances when the duration of reading is more spread out, our brain is channelled to remember where we last left off, recalling the narrative multiple times. Like most organs, the more we exercise our brain, the better it works. We take in a lot more information than the brain can actively remember, which is why only the important details can be channelled by the brain’s recovery instinct.


This selective retention is more common in leisurely reading for obvious reasons. Leisurely reading is meant to be an enjoyable experience, not a constant struggle to recall the information you’re consuming. However, when a person reads for a purpose, such as for a test, the information is consumed with the intention of retaining it, and our brain puts in a conscious effort to try and preserve it.


Some people have strong retention levels, and even remember books they’ve read long ago, but for most a large chunk of the information consumed is usually forgotten within 24 hours unless it is recalled, as the forgetting curve is the steepest during the first 24 hours. So, unless you sit around daydreaming about characters, you probably won’t remember them for long.


Despite all the forgetfulness, the stories you’ve read and the characters you possibly swooned over are not completely erased from your memory. They are just enclosed in some drawer pushed far behind in your brain somewhere; it is only a matter of reviving them. Our brain works on a recognition instinct that comes into function once it detects familiar information being consumed. The stories will come back to you as you read the blurb or perhaps the first few chapters.

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