I’m feeling a little better, but only a little better, because (A) my daughter, who is decades from qualifying for a senior discount, cannot remember the gist of a seminar she attended last week. She came home singing its praises, full of ideas and epiphanies. But what were they, she asks me now, a mere seven days later? And (B) my younger friend Maureen, who was born the year I started high school, who never forgets a name — she can recite the entire cast of characters from the TV show “Parenthood” even though it’s been off the air for nearly three years — cannot recall the title or plot of a book she read just last week.
“I don’t remember books or movies,” she states calmly, because she has not yet reached the age when you obsess about these things.
But I have. And so has my friend Anne.
She and I were talking the other day about a novel we’d both read, not a year ago, but just last month. “What was the name of that book,” I asked her. “You ordered it from Amazon and you didn’t like it, remember?”
“I didn’t like it because you didn’t tell me it was a children’s book. But once I realized it was for young adults, I liked it.”
“So what was the name?”
Neither of us could remember.
When I was a kid and my grandmother would visit, she’d always be in the middle of some paperback she kept in her purse. She wore thick glasses, her eyesight poor because she’d had rheumatic fever as a child, and when I’d ask her, “What are you reading, Nana?” she’d have to fumble through her purse for her glasses, put them on, and read the title to me, a thing I could not fathom because how could she not know the name of the book she was reading?
One time when she got to the last page, she took off her glasses, put her elbows on the table, her head in her hands, and let out a sigh.
“What’s wrong, Nana?” I asked.
“What’s wrong is that I didn’t realize until the last page that I’ve read this book before.”
I was flabbergasted. How could she not remember an entire book?
Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, answers this question in his poem “Forgetfulness.”
We forget because we don’t have to remember anymore. We can Google authors, movies, facts, phone numbers.
“The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of . . . ”
And although I love this poem because it makes me smile in recognition, it does not bring me comfort.
What does is an article from The Atlantic, at www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/01/what-was-this-article-about-again/551603/ “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read . . . and the movies and TV shows we watch.”
We forget, the author alleges, because we are reading all the time, online, on our Kindles and our phones, taking in so much information that little sticks. We forget because, unless we review what we learn, write it down, talk about it, study it, “much of it” slips away. We forget because we don’t have to remember anymore. We can Google authors, movies, facts, phone numbers, the Internet our memory’s external drive.
We forget, also, because we take in too much at once. A study by researchers at the University of Melbourne found “that those who binge-watched TV shows forgot the content of them much more quickly than people who watched one episode a week.” Slower learning is better learning, the study concluded. It’s the same with books. “Data collected by the marketing company Likehack tells us that the average social media user ‘reads’ — or perhaps just clicks on — 285 pieces of content daily, an estimated 54,000 words,” The Morning News reported, at https://themorningnews.org/article/binge-reading-disorder. “If it is true, then we are reading a novel slightly longer than ‘The Great Gatsby’ every day.”
This research makes me feel better. I forwarded the links to Anne, and she feels better, too. But it’s temporary, we know, because next week, next month, one of us will say, “Remember those studies about forgetting?”
And the other will say, “What studies?”Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.