The brain science of book reviews

Do you struggle to remember the books you’ve read or TV shows you’ve watched? Even if they were really, really good?

            I know I do.

            I can usually remember the name of the book on my bedside table, but those that came before it—even very recent reads—are lost in the story mists of my mind. As a writer myself, my own behaviour confounds and appalls me.

            However, this year, I have a plan for keeping track of my reads. I’ve created a form, which I’ll put on my fridge to note the books I’ve read and score them out of 20. That way, at the end of the year, when someone asks if I’ve read any good books lately, I’ll have an intelligent answer. Provided, of course, I remember to write all the books down on the list!

            Why is it we fail to remember stories, even the most epic, poignant or worldview-shifting works? Apparently, it’s something to do with Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve.  Ebbinghaus was a German scientist in the 1880s who wanted to understand why we forget things and how we can prevent it. (I bet he had a Books Read This Year list on his fridge too!)

          He found that if we learn something new, but make no attempt to reaffirm that information, we remember less and less of it as the hours, days and weeks go by.

           The biggest drop in retention happens, surprisingly, quite soon after learning something, or, for our purposes, reading or watching a thing. The remembering curve drops off dramatically at the beginning.

           He found that it was easier for us to recall things that had meaning, were well presented, at a time when we ourselves were in good health and well-rested. Which seems quite logical. But all things being equal, given that a majority of us are reading coherent books with stories we connect with on some level while we’re not on our knees with illness, how do we stop ourselves forgetting them?

           Ebbinghaus found one way of slowing the loss of new information was to do a review session soon after the original learning. Hmmm. For we readers, that means we would write a book review, recapping the story and describing what we liked about it, soon after finishing the read. That should help it stick in our minds longer.

           And the added bonus is that it would let a poor scribe know someone was actually reading their words, that they weren’t just gathering dust on a digital shelf.

           In 2015, a research team reproduced Ebbinghaus’s findings and concluded that his methods and theories still held true.

           Let’s look at it from the writer’s POV. We get an idea for a story, we tap, tap, tap away at the keyboard, pushing through self-doubt and plot gridlock, snow-ploughing through blank pages, filling in details—thousands, tens-of-thousands of details—to get that (less than perfect) first draft. Then we edit, edit and edit some more with betas, story editors, sensitivity readers, proofreaders, ARC readers, cover designer. Not to mention wrangling countless online platforms to let people know the book exists. After which—if we’re not Sarah Maas or JK Rowling—we get…silence. Lots of it. People might be enjoying our work but we rarely hear about it.

           So, I’ve resolved this year I will review books I enjoyed soon after finishing them, hoping 1) that the story lingers longer in my memory before being crushed by the weight of shopping lists, deadlines, bills, appointments, and 2) it will keep writers producing words for future stories with hope in their hearts and a smile on their faces.  

           Who’s with me?



(Of course, not everyone likes every book. And some people may decide not to review those they don’t like as a kindness to an author. That is appreciated too!)