William Poole has never forgotten a particular lesson about memory

No onebuys me serious books for Christmas. They assume that as I read serious books for a living I don’t want them as presents.

This would be fine if only one or two people made this deduction, but as they all make it, I usually stagger back south after Christmas laden with multiple copies of seasonal jocularity.

This year’s hit has been those irritating Ladybird Book skits – you know, the Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis, Sheds, the Hipster, Mindfulness, the Wife, so on.

Well, I’ve got them all, in triplicate. Actually the one on the Hipster is rather good.

I counteract all of this by some humourless charity shopping, especially in the fine charity bookshops of Edinburgh and St Andrews – the Edinburgh ones at Stockbridge, in particular, put their Oxonian equivalents to shame. I came out of an Oxfam yesterday with a copy of Buchanan’s De Jure Regni apud Scotos for two quid.

I hadn’t read this fine dialogue on deposing and executing kings properly before, although I have certainly pretended to have done so. When academics say “haven’t read… properly”, you may delete that third word.

Another one to watch for is: “I have seen the book”, which means its opposite. Further variants are “a long time ago I read…” and the desperate: “I must have read…”.

The same Oxfam shop, incidentally, also sported some quickly discarded Ladybird Books of the Mid-Life Crisis, Sheds, etc.

Going back home for Christmas and New Year also reunites me with many of my own forgotten or discarded books.

Many of my undergraduate books languish in the family home, and they bring back memories of some gruelling times.

There is the complete works of Oscar Wilde, read in a week for a tutorial essay in Michaelmas 1995, and then shut permanently.

What a waste of time: I cannot think of anything that will induce me to reread The Duchess of Padua or Vera and the Nihilists.

I remember that tutorial. “Wilde is not very good,” I cautiously ventured. “Yes,” said my tutor, a man fond of twitting seemingly established authors, “a complete waste of time. Don’t know why you bothered.”

Much more terrifying, however, was finding my old school maths jotters. I look at my undergraduate books and, yes, I can still see me reading and understanding them.

But I look at my schoolbooks in subjects that left me behind long ago, and it is as if I am eavesdropping on an alien. It is definitely my handwriting, and I appear to have been adept at “Gaussian Elimination”. Eh what? “A method of solving systems of linear equations,” my younger self patiently explains. Coefficients, you know. I’m none the wiser.

It’s astonishing how little we retain. In my freshers’ week, my tutor, the one who didn’t like Wilde either, set us 100 factual questions on our vacation reading. (“What is the chest measurement of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses?”) Anyone who got more than 20 right was doing well. And these were books we had only just read.

I have never forgotten that lesson: most of what we read never even touches memory.