This week’s title refers to Michael McDonald’s 1982 song with the same name. We are not going to talk a lot about music, however, but we are going to do some reflection about memory and our often-frustrating ability to forget nearly everything we read, hear, or see. Here we can cue in the lyrics, attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, from Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight’s versions of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine:” “People say believe half of what you see . . . .and none of what you hear.”
Most of what you see and hear from this point on is based on a January 26 Atlantic article by Jule Beck, titled “Why We Forget Most Of The Books We Read.” Here I am reminded of a book I vaguely remember, Pierre Bayard’s very clever, and very accurate, HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ (2007). I’m sure most of us have done this very thing–namely, gone on and one about a book, TV show, or movie we only know about through heresay or what appears on Amazon.com, Wikipedia, or IMDb. Give me about two minutes with either of these sources, and I am prepared to give a reasonably informed lecture, complete with slides, about most anything. This phenomenon is all-too-common and perhaps inevitable in this world of instantaneous information (most of which we forget, as we will see below).
As a history teacher/learner, I am all too aware of just how fallible, and in most cases innaccurate, our memories are. I came away from reading Beck’s article with a sense of relief that I am not the only person in the world who can read a book, watch a movie, attend a lecture, etc. and then turn around a forget most of what I have seen or heard. Maybe that’s why I seldom lecture or give conventional tests in my classes. But I digress.
Beck uses Pamela Paul, whose new book MY LIFE WITH BOB recounts the benefits of keeping a reading journal, as a good example of why we forget so much. “Pamela Paul’s memories of reading are less about words and more about the experience.” As Paul herself admits, “I remember the edition; I remember the cover; I usually remember where I bought it, or who gave it to me. What I don’t remember–and it’s terrible–is everything else.” I have a long standing habit of writing the purchase or acquisition date of each book I own inside the front cover and indicating the date and time when I finished reading it on the last page. But this habit doesn’t help me recall the book’s contents. In fact, I recently pulled a book off my shelf and reminded myself that I needed to read it one day, only to discover that I had written my completion date and time on the last page. It was only then that I remembered the experience of reading the book but not its exact contents. I am sure it was a pleasant experience. And this is maybe why we read–to fill our lives with pleasant experiences that ironically have so little impact on our lives. Fortunately I can usually recall enough of the book’s basic ideas to make me feel at home among my way-too-numerous books. It’s like being in a room full of friends whose names I can’t recall, however.
Alas, the phenomenon Beck describes is, in her words, “. . .like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.” Lest this sound like a very pessimistic conclusion, we should remember that it’s better to recall the film than to have never taken the bath. This “forgetting curve” explains why you can’t recall anything on a test the day after taking it, the plot of a movie, or the results of binge watching a favorite TV show. As Beck reminds us (if you can remember, of course), referring to the work done by memory researcher Jared Horvath, that “In the internet age, recall memory–the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind–has become less necessary. It’s still good for bar trivia, or remembering your to-do list, but largely . . . . what’s called recognition memory is more important.” This means that if you know where to look to find information, you don’t need to waste all those brain cells storing it. Knowing this, our brains expend less energy and precious storage space on retaining information. “With its streaming services and Wikipedia articles, the internet has lowered the stakes on remembering the culture we consume even further. But it’s hardly as if we remembered it all before,” says Beck.
Maybe we should take a lesson from Pamela Paul’s habit of writing down her impressions of each book she reads. That way our reading diaries, which she affectionately calls “Bob,” will serve as reminders of what was important about what we read–or watched. Our “Bob” journals should include movies and TV shows as well as books.
The important take-away from all this is that we should reexamine our ideas about education, especially when it comes to the all-too-familiar “memorize-and-take-test” scenarios. Wouldn’t it be better to ask our students to keep “Bob” journals? That’s what I do, although I don’t name the journals. And I have my students write down reflections of what they have learned before they leave class. The process of doing this is, for me at least, more important than giving a test that will be forgotten in less than 24 hours. Learning, after all, is a process rather than a procedure.
Before I bid you a fond farewell, ask yourself how much you remember about what you’ve just read. But please don’t tell me!
See you next week, if I can remember to write next week’s column!