How we remember the stories we read

When I look back over the list of books that I’ve read, I am sometimes amazed by how much I don’t remember. This is equally true for short fiction as it is for novels. Some books and stories stand out in my mind clear as if I read them yesterday, while others I know that I read and can remember where I was when I read them; I can recall the basic plot but can’t recall much beyond that. It’s disappointing because it begs the question, why read the book if you are just going to forget it?

It seems to me that there are two dimensions to stories1.

  1. Enjoyment
  2. Memory

Each of these dimensions acts as a continuum and define your overall experience with a story. In combination, you get a grid that looks something like this:

Poor memory Good memory
High Rating Stories you “experience” Stories that make a real impact on you.
Low Rating Stories that are genuinely forgettable Stories that make you think; “tough” stories

Here is an example of this chart illustrated based on my own experience. I took my ratings from Goodreads (1-5 stars) and I put them in a spreadsheet next to 100 science fiction titles that I’ve read. Then I created another column which I called “Memory” and gave that a 1-5 rating as well. The memory scale I used goes as follows and is completely based on my own experience:

  1. No real memory of the story.
  2. Can remember portions of the plot but not details
  3. Can remember the plot well enough to discuss/recommend
  4. In addition to good knowledge of the plot, can add some good critical insights
  5. Have the thing virtually memorized, along with much criticism of the work

I picked ten novels that fell into the various places in the continuum and illustrated them in the chart below:

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Click to enlarge

The High-Rating/Good-Memory and Low-Rating/Poor-Memory groupings are pretty self-explanatory. What I find interesting are the areas that are shaded in the illustration above: high-rating/poor-memory and good-memory/low-rating.

High-Rating/Poor Memory

Until recently, I worried that, despite enjoying a lot of what I read, I couldn’t always recall it too well long afterwards. I decided (right or wrong) that this isn’t so much a problem with my memory (which in all other ways is quite good) but with how I experience stories. Some stories are appealing for the experience in and of themselves, but leave behind no lasting memory. These are “entertainments,” things that are a pleasure to read but once I’m done, they slip my mind.

You can see from the illustration above that books like 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke and More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon fall into this niche. I remember almost nothing of More Than Human, but I do remember liking it at the time I read it. Odyssey Three is almost the perfect hard science fiction entertainment piece, an exciting adventure in space, but with no real brain churning things to think about. Again, pure entertainment.

Low-Rating/Good Memory

Inverting this, you get the area shaded in blue, which contains things that I remember well, but didn’t particularly like. There aren’t many examples of this on my list but one that stood out is Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. It took me three tries to get through this book and when I finally did, I didn’t like what I’d read, but I remember it well.

The Low-Rating/Good-Memory category is important. I think it represents stories that make you think, but that rub you the wrong way. Perhaps you don’t buy the premise. Perhaps you disagree with the direction the author took the story or the actions of the characters. In the case of Stranger, there were things that I liked about, but I felt in this instance that Heinlein was coming across as too preachy.

A word on Low-Rating/Low-Memory stories

In the first chart, I characterize these stories as completely forgettable. But upon deeper consideration, I think that perhaps these are stories deserving of a re-read. Sometimes, you don’t remember a story because it was too long ago and there were other events taking place that have blotted out the memory. Sometimes, you rate a story low because you don’t have the experience to properly interpret it. There is one such book that would fit into the Low-Rating (1)/ Poor-Memory (1) box. I didn’t include it on the chart, but I will mention it here: City by Clifford D. Simak.

I like Cliff Simak’s stories and I loved his novel Way Station. I read City while on jury duty in Hollywood in the late 1990s and I did so because I’d read somewhere that it was an amazing collection of related stories. My expectations were high and I was bitterly disappointed. But the poor memory in this case might be a good thing. I feel like I want to give City another chance (and indeed, as part of my Vacation in the Golden Age, I will). And so perhaps stories that fall into this grouping are worthy of a second look.


I may be over analyzing the situation. I know a lot of people who seem to remember stories far better than I do, but then it may only be those stories that they really like, or that really trouble them. I really have struggled with the fact that there are some stories that I’ve read that I can no longer remember. If not for the fact that they were on my list, I might deny reading them at all. These feelings are strongest at a place like Readercon, where the attendees and participants alike are among the best-read people in science fiction that I have ever met.

Am I alone here? Does this framework make any sense? Let me know what you think.

  1. And by “stories” I mean any form of fiction, long or short.

4 thoughts on “How we remember the stories we read

  1. It kind of reminds me of the poetic analysis at the beginning of Dead Poets Society…

    Anyway, Jamie, I do find the clumping of the data interesting. Do you think that itself is an artifact of sampling, since you could not possibly list ever work you’ve ever read?

  2. Paul, I’m certain that the clumping is an artifact of the sampling: I was trying to choose examples which fit into each of the different areas so that folks would see what I thought of as high/low rating, good/poor memory, etc. It would be interesting to see what the whole list looked like at some point, but it would take too much time to do right now.

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