What You Remember from the Book Isn’t Always the Important Part

Do books even work well at transmitting facts?

I recently read an interesting essay making the case that they don’t. After all, how many individual lessons or facts do you really remember from the history book in your senior year of high school? What about the book you finished last week?

Our memories tend to quickly pare down what we remember from books into 2 or 3 main takeaways. Our brains are ruthlessly economical, understandably only keeping the few facts that really seem to matter. All the other stuff filling hundreds of pages gets kind of pushed to the back of our brains somewhere.

But what if transmission isn’t the point of books anyway?

I recently listened to the biography of a remarkable Irishman named Thomas Francis Meagher, who participated in the 1848 Young Ireland revolt, was exiled to Tasmania, escaped to the United States, led the Irish Brigade in the Civil War, and became de facto governor of Montana before being killed by some conniving vigilantes.

Now, this book was recent enough that I remember some of the biographical details. But I expect most of them will fade with time. I won’t remember the name of his wife, whom he treated as an intelligent and capable partner in a more patriarchal time. I won’t remember the name of the young man with a speech impediment whom he made his secretary. I won’t remember the words he fired back when he awaited a likely sentence of death as a young revolutionary.

What I will remember is the quality of character out of which all those facts sprang. That character caught my imagination and inspired me. It made me want to be better. It made me aim higher.

I’ve become convinced (and I know I’ve heard the idea elsewhere in some form) that spending time with good books (or podcasts, music, videos, etc) is like spending time with good people. When you spend time around good people who are brave, kind, hardworking, resourceful, honest, and generous, you become more brave, kind, hardworking, resourceful, honest, and generous yourself. It is not so important exactly *what* you do or discuss with these people – it’s rather the unconscious influences that have the greatest impact over time.

Similarly, it’s no so important what you can recall from the pages of a book if it has had enough of a powerful pull to make you a better person.

Photo by Annelies Geneyn on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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