You probably don’t have a photographic memory, able to quickly recall the precise words on a particular page of something you’ve read only once. Few are the readers with such a gift.

You may feel like you don’t even have a good nonphotographic memory. You can’t remember the names of main characters or the major plot points in the book of fiction you plowed through last summer on vacation. You can’t remember most, if any, of the principles in a Christian living book you read over the holidays, except for the main point (which you could pretty much glean from the title!). You can’t remember anything but the general topic of a book of accessible theology you studied with a church group in the fall.

If you can’t remember most of what you read, why even bother? Aren’t there better ways to use your time?

Power of the 1 Percent

In 1981, a young John Piper sought to encourage Sunday school teachers in his congregation who felt a sense of “quantitative hopelessness” when considering the one measly hour they get with children who watch countless hours of TV every week. Piper urged them not to overlook the value of a holy encounter, “the immeasurable moment” and the “lasting, transforming power of an insight.”

Piper used reading as an example: “I do not remember 99 percent of what I read,” he told them. “I don’t remember books whole.” He then went on to say,

It is sentences that change your life, not books. . . . What changes a life is a new glimpse into reality or truth, or some powerful challenge that comes to us, or some resolution of a long-standing dilemma that we’ve had. And most of those—the insight, the challenge, or the resolution—are usually embodied in a very short, little space. A paragraph or a sentence and whammo—it hits home, and we remember it, and it affects us for our whole life long.

Remembering everything you read isn’t the point. The power of a well-crafted sentence that wows the reader with insight is the blessing that, Piper says, makes the other 99 percent of reading worth suffering through. But I think we ought to also consider the effects of the other 99 percent of reading, even if you don’t come across a new insight that changes your life.

Power of the Other 99 Percent

Sometimes pastors feel discouraged when most of their congregation can’t remember the main points of Sunday’s sermon. But is remembering the outline the goal? Even if just one insight or statement or story stood out to a church member, doesn’t that make the sermon memorable?

Furthermore, should we think the parts of the sermon a church member doesn’t remember have no formative effect on the congregation? Surely the “forgettable” parts still matter. How the pastor treats the text—carefully explaining its meaning, adorning it with good illustrations, seeing it in light of the wider world of Christian teaching, driving toward an encounter with God—all these practices shape the listener in imperceptible ways.

The same is true for books you don’t remember. Austin Carty says “uploading information to our brains is not the main reason for reading,” and he turns to a brilliant analogy to make the point: the filters on your phone’s photo app. Older phones had only the image and nothing more, no other lens to see it through. But the variety of filters now available allow you to see the image in ways that draw out its richness. Carty writes,

“The point is this: The primary purpose of reading is not to be able to consciously recall what we have read; it’s to constantly keep refining the lens through which we see reality. Even though we don’t remember 90 percent of what we have read, it still gets inside of us—in ways we’re unaware of and at depths we don’t know we have. It still enriches our filter—even when we don’t realize it is happening.”

C. S. Lewis made a similar point about reading and how it expands our vision and understanding:

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. . . . The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.”

This Is Why You Read

Remembering everything you read isn’t the point.

Yes, you can read with the hope of encountering one sentence that strikes you with insight and changes your life. But encountering all the other paragraphs and chapters that don’t stand out still shapes and forms your outlook, in ways you don’t see or fully comprehend.

The effects of reading go far beyond the details you remember or the sentences you highlight. Reading enhances your filter, giving you knowledge and insight that will reverberate in your mind in ways you can’t perceive, offering a measure of wisdom and breadth you wouldn’t otherwise have.

That’s why you read. And why even the books you can’t remember still matter.

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