Is reading nonfiction only worthwhile if you retain the information?
I mean, fiction is its own beast, right? With stories, we’re okay to get wrapped up in the plot and characters and enjoy the tale for its own sake. If visions of Middle-Earth fade from our mind’s eye as soon as we snap the covers shut, nothing was lost. And in fact, forgetting what we’ve read might be a sort of blessing—then we can later experience the same story as if for the first time. Hell, who would want to remember what they’ve read?
But we treat nonfiction differently. It’s as if we’ve “wasted” our time plowing through a book if we aren’t ready to ace a test on the subject as soon as our eyes cross the final page.
The result is that we’ll berate ourselves for forgetting what we’ve read. (“Only ‘dumb’ people have this poor a memory.”) Or, more commonly I suspect, we simply avoid reading nonfiction entirely. We don’t want to look at a familiar spine on our shelf but draw a blank on its contents.
I had some of these feelings for a time but now I realize I’ve overcome them, and I’d like to meditate a bit on why.
For starters, I think school has a nasty way of corrupting what can and ought to be one of the most rewarding activities in life—reading nonfiction—because we start to treat such books as a means to an end, whether that’s passing a test or beefing up a research paper. The nonfiction book becomes a hurdle between the finish line of a good grade. There’s a reason why a quarter of American adults might go a whole year without reading a book, and I’m not convinced that it’s because they’re “too busy.” I suspect part of it is that they’re not eager to face the idea that they wasted their time “getting through” a book only to find that they seemingly gained nothing out of it upon reaching the other side. Once you’re out of school, there’s no grade left to earn, no essay bibliography left to pad—only the sense that your brain isn’t as fuller as it ought to be, and thus that you’ve wasted your time. Why bother?
To that I say, reading nonfiction can be an intrinsically pleasurable activity—even if you forget the details of what you read as soon as you close the book. That’s because reading = thinking.
But here’s the key—the nature of what you’re thinking about in that moment is modulated and enriched by what you’re reading. I’ve found that I’m able to enjoy reading in the moment itself because I’m almost always thinking “on top” of whatever text is in my hands. I’m relating the book to other things I’ve read, to other discussions I’ve heard, to other experiences I’ve had. I might be questioning the author’s agenda—even doubting the author’s goodwill towards me as a reader. Reading thus serves not as a crude way to download the author’s knowledge into my own head but as a spice to flavor the thinking that’s already stewing in my mind—the thinking that’s going to be occurring regardless of whether I have a book in my hands. I might spend several minutes on a page not because I’m a “slow reader” but because my mind is poking and prodding this new information, running it through my own cognitive filters. I’m enjoying the mental tangents that I’m allowing myself to indulge.
And here’s the thing—if I were to revisit the same book a year or a decade from now, I’d have different things on my mind. The sort of intellectual daydreaming that would occur when I slide my gaze across the text would take on an entirely different character. I’ve found this to be the case when I read books on content strategy. Texts that once struck me as abstract and hard to grasp have grown in relatability as I’ve grown in experience. I’m nodding my head along with the author, “Yup, yup—wow, that’s articulated exactly right!”
For some of the more instructional nonfiction books I read, sometimes all that really matters is remembering what kind of information is in the book. If I remember that UX book A contains a particularly thorough description of how to conduct remote card sorting tests or that UX book B gets into the nitty-gritty of how to price a content strategy project for a client, it’s less important that I remember those actual details than it is to remember that I can return to those books when I need that information again in the future.
(I’m vaguely reminded of Maya Angelou’s words about remembering not what people said but how they made you feel, only in this case one can substitute “people” for “books” and I think the wisdom holds just as true.)
What I’ve found is that I’ve become less concerned with the “quality” of my reading—meaning how well the information sticks in my brain after I’ve flipped the page—and more so with my “quantity” of reading. If I’m reading about a topic that genuinely interests me, I’ll naturally seek out more material on the subject. (Undoubtedly that’s another unfortunate association students make with reading—they think of the activity as a plunge into information that they probably aren’t going to give a shit about.) I’ll consume new books about the same subject, and inevitably these new books with retread over material I’ve gone through before, only this time I’ll pick it up from a new author’s perspective. After the second or third time I read about Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution,” I’ll finally be able to explain it myself. I’ll start to predict which anecdotes the author will bring up. “Oh yeah, this again? I think I know where this is going.”
So to those who are worried about their “quality” of reading, about the difficulty of retaining what you’ve read—stop looking at the final page of the book as your destination. The page you’re on right now is all the material you need to stimulate interesting, worthwhile thoughts.