How do you remember what you read?

Posted July 21, 2019 by Lory in discussions / 37 Comments



Reading is one thing, but remembering is something else. I love the experience of reading while I’m in it, but sometimes I wish the results were not so ephemeral. There are so many times a title is called to mind and I think “I know I read that — but I don’t remember anything about it!” It’s only after several rereadings, usually, that much begins to stick.

One of the things I appreciate about blogging is that it helps me to cement my memory of a book; the process of writing a post makes me reflect in a more conscious way than usual. And I have a written record in case I want to go back and jog my memory.

But the ones that don’t make it onto the blog — even the ones I really liked at the time — soon dissipate into faint wisps of recollection, along with all the other books from the past. When I’m asked for recommendations, or something rings a bell and I think “Didn’t I read a book like that?” it’s lost in the vast uncatalogued archive of my brain and I can seldom dredge up the details.

What could I do? Some possibilities are:

  • Read every book at least twice (unless I already know it’s not worth remembering)
  • Keep a reading journal – including thoughts and significant passages as well as title and author
  • Take at least brief notes on each book read, maybe just one sentence
  • Be less distracted when reading; don’t do other things at the same time, read one book at a time

Re-reading everything is not practical because it takes up too much time that I’d like to give to other books, and journaling and note-taking are cumbersome. I hate interrupting the flow of reading to think about it, and it’s unlikely I will ever manage to carry a notebook and pen around with me everywhere along with my book.

Perhaps I could discipline myself to at least record a few thoughts once I’ve finished the book. For some reason I have great resistance to this as well — the books I have something to say about usually end up in blog posts, and I don’t like pressuring myself when such thoughts don’t spring naturally to mind. But maybe I would get used to it after a while. Same thing with reading in a less distracted, fragmented way — it doesn’t come naturally, though I’m sure it would be good for me.

Do you have a better system for remembering what you read? Any ideas to help me out? My aging memory may be a lost cause, but I do wish I could find a way to make it stronger in this department.


Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!



37 responses to “How do you remember what you read?

    • Oh yes, Goodreads. I keep thinking I should use it, but I just can’t stick to entering every single book in a timely fashion.

  1. I started to use Goodreads a few years ago, and although it’s helped, there are books I’ve marked as read that I have no clue about. I’ve started scrolling through the books marked as the current year on my read shelf periodically, just to jog my memory every now and then…

    • I do keep track of books read (at least title and author) in a paper journal … for the last five years anyway. But that doesn’t help with recalling more detail. See above for my failure re: Goodreads.

  2. I wish I had the solution to this. Some books I enjoy and yet I find I retain little info about them- just a recollection of the impression it made on me. Crime fiction I very rarely recall. Like you I just can’t see me stopping reading to make notes – that feels like study, not pleasure

  3. This is so true!! I’m really bad at remembering the small details of books–if I do, it’s usually because I really loved it, I read it more than once, or I had to write an essay about it/take notes on it for school. Great post! 🙂

    • If I take the time to think more deeply it usually does sink in better. If only we had extra hours in the day to do that.

  4. I do take notes while I read and I find that I still remember the books I actually review the best, so I don’t have a helpful suggestion here! I’d also like to remember what I read better. I think reading other books that connect somehow can help, but I’m not always willing to structure my reading that way and I still struggle to remember as much of the content of each book I read as I’d like.

    • Hm reading books in groups is an interesting idea. I still find they can all sink into oblivion together, unless I make an effort to recall how they connect.

  5. Same problem and I give up trying. Even writing reviews on my blog won’t help me. I read it a few years later and think “Really I wrote that!” But I will remember if I loved it and then I am happy because I have a book I might reread and be very happy doing so.

    • It’s not always bad to be forgetful. I do enjoy reading some books again just because of that.

  6. Interesting post because it gives rise to questions about how I used to read. My problem is more that there are titles I think I once read (an aspect of false memory syndrome maybe) rather than forgetting what I read.

    In fact I probably have a better memory for books I really have read than for people I’ve met. But since I started reviewing — in the 70s for an Arthurian magazine and then in the noughties online — there’s less chance of me forgetting what I’ve read or falsely remembering what I haven’t!

    So my experience is somewhat different to yours, Lory. As for your bugbear about stopping the flow of reading with taking notes, I tend not to do so with what I regard as light reading, but with more serious stuff, both fiction and non-fiction, which I really engage with I do keep a notebook or smartphone to hand to record key passages or ideas. As for cataloguing what I read, I think that in the last couple of decades the titles that I haven’t noted or reviewed online (either blogging or Goodreads) could probably be counted on the fingers of my hands, excluding the thumbs!

    • Oh, I also have that thing about thinking I’ve read books when I haven’t! Memory can play me false both ways.

      I think I shall be happy that I do manage to do some kind of recording of some portion of my reading, which is all to the good. The years before blogging are a lost cause.

  7. Nothing new. I mostly remember what I blog about, if I don’t, chances are I too forget. But I keep lists and since three years ago or so, I add to my Goodreads and blog lists every title. (It may help me that I don’t read a ton, but I read some hefty non fiction and that to me, -apart from a few generalities-, it’s difficult to remember well.

    You read so much, (and this comment is a compliment), that it would be strange if you could remember it all well, LOL.

    Narrating a little bit the plot to yourself, even if you don’t write about it, could help.

    • Okay, your point about reading so much has occurred to me as well. I think I should be grateful for what I am able to retain. 😀 I think “re-narrating” at any point is a good technique.

  8. Urg, I have this problem too! I am awful at remembering books haha. Usually I can remember generally if I liked it or not, but the plot escapes me. I don’t even usually bother trying to remember. I have just accepted that its the way I am 😂😂

    • It’s good to accept one’s limitations. We should not get too upset about what we can’t do after all.

  9. I am not distracted by taking notes of the book I am reading. I get distracted by reading more than one book at a time, although sometimes I can read a nonfiction while I am read a fiction. I take notes even if I don’t think I will blog a particular book, because some quotes or passages I want to remember. I when I think about a title I’ve read I will sometimes go back and look at my notes to see what struck me.

    “the books I have something to say about usually end up in blog posts, and I don’t like pressuring myself when such thoughts don’t spring naturally to mind.

    I will sometimes read something, and this is usually nonfiction, that I have enjoyed so much, but when I sit down to write about it, I can’t. So I don’t. This is a mystery to me.

    • I would like to take down more passages to remember. I’ve gone through phases where I kept special journals for that but lately I just stick them into random notebooks if at all and then I can’t always find them again.

  10. I make some marks in the book–underlining, marginal comments. And I keep all my books. So if I want to remember, I have notes.

    • For some reason I am fine with marking up nonfiction books, but not fiction. Maybe because I associate nonfiction with school (even though I mostly read fiction books as an English major)? It’s not rational but a strong habit.

      If I could have an infinitely expanding library that existed in some magical space along the lines of the Library in Discworld, I would love to keep every book I read. I’d need a really good cataloguing system though.

  11. This is definitely something I deal with as well. I think that both reading a great volume of books and being a fast reader compound the issue. I can’t imagine interrupting my flow to take notes. Audiobooks and reading aloud to my classes both slow things way down, and I definitely remember books I’ve read at that rate much better. It’s like I can think about the book and read it at the same time, which helps cement it. Reading at my normal pace doesn’t leave brain room for that. I’ve just accepted that I won’t remember more of what I read!

    • Interesting point about reading aloud. I wonder if that would help – I mostly only read books aloud to my son and usually they are books I’ve read already. I have never managed to get into audiobooks because my attention wanders. Perhaps it would be good to try, at least once in a while, for that very reason!

  12. I’ve thought a lot about this, as I’ve always seemed to have a pretty good recall for what I read, but I was never sure why – it wasn’t anything I set out to do consciously, just a happy accident. I find taking notes crucial, as I read and after I’ve finished (that’s how I came to review books, putting those notes to use). I also find talking about what I’m reading with others helps – even if it’s just saying to my husband “Hey, so I’m reading this book at the moment and here’s what happened/here’s my favourite part/here’s what I don’t like about it/whatever”. I actually wrote about this on my blog as well, with heaps of tips, if that’s of any help? 😉

    • Great post. You have indeed thought about this a lot and have some sensible tips.

      The idea of explaining certain books to a toddler gives me pause — I think it is possible to over-simplify some things beyond the point of usefulness — but I am frequently having to describe what I’m reading to my nearly thirteen year old son and that is an interesting exercise. With that age you have an audience that can handle basically adult content if it’s framed in the right way. And it is a good practice to paraphrase or re-frame what you’re reading if you want to remember it.

      • Cheers! Completely see your point re: the age of the listener. I think as long as your brain is doing the cognitive processing to consolidate what you’re reading in a way that it can be explained, you’ll get the desired effect (of remembering what you read). Happy reading + remembering! 😍❤️

  13. This is a great topic to think about. I record what I read (Goodreads and on the blog) but taking notes about what I read is a different story. Especially this year when I’m finding I’m not reviewing nearly as much as I have in the past. One thing that helps me a little, is my monthly wrap up post, where I describe at least one favorite book and a disappointing book each month. Highlighting text in my Kindle also helps; Goodreads stores those highlights and makes them easy to retrieve. But often I wish I highlighted much more than I do.

    • I’ve wondered if I should do short notes about all the books in my monthly wrap-up. I think that could be a help for future reference. But…it would be a lot more work. Hm.

  14. Blogging definitely helps me remember things! Just writing down my thoughts helps, but then being able to read my reviews later helps as well! I just recently re-read a book. I knew I loved it when I first read it, but when I started re-reading, I was shocked and also a bit excited to see that I didn’t remember how the mystery turned out! 🙂

    • Sometimes I’ve gotten nearly to the end of a book before remembering I’ve read it before! I don’t know why some books just don’t stick at all.

  15. I do not have a good strategy to cope with this problem. I’ve gotten horribly out of the habit of writing reviews of the books I read, and it means that most of my books fall straight out of my brain. I’ve thought about doing a reading journal, but I’m not sure how to make myself stick with it.

    • I’m always hoping I’ll come up with a surefire system, but so far it has not happened.

  16. This is a great post.

    This is also an issue that I have had. It is great when one blogs about a book. That really seems to seal it.

    Otherwise I know just keep a few notes. My notes are digital and very messy, but I think that they do this job.

    I so wish that I had kept a reading journal from a young age.

    • I think I have a hangup about not taking neat and uniform notes, fearing that they will become scattered and unmanageable. So I just don’t even try. At least blogging keeps things somewhat under control.

  17. I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I probably won’t remember details from all the books I’ve read, and I’m okay with that. The ones that really make an impression stick with me, and those are the ones I truly want to remember anyway. Blogging definitely helps, though (I tend to write at least a short review for almost every book I read).