How To Read So It Counts

When you read a book, how deeply do you interact with it?  How do you retain what you read?  How do you let the ideas you’re considering really make an impact on your life?

I’ve always been an avid reader, and at different times I’ve tried to retain what I read in different ways.  As a little kid I would copy words or phrases I liked the sound of on little scraps of paper and save them as treasures.  In later years I took to writing quotes from what I read on the flyleaves of notebook.  In college I collected passages and pithy one-liners and incorporated them into epic wall collages (“forget love, try good manners!”).  After I left school though, I found my reading slipping through my fingers.  I enjoyed the feel of it, but didn’t retain a lot.

Writing book reviews on A Spiritied Mind helps me keep a record of what I’ve read, but a short review is not usually adequate to trace out complete arguments or remind me of all the things I wanted to think about or implement in my life.

Different methods of reading and remembering work for different people, but here is one way to read so it counts:

1. Use tabs as you go.

I used to try to take notes as I read, but I found that impeded the flow of my reading and made my pace frustratingly slow.  Moreover, I don’t always know which points will wind up being the most important until after I’ve completed a book.  So I read with a pile of sticky tabs (the clear ones work best because they are reusable, but the solid post-it tabs work fine too) in hand and every time I see something I might want to revisit, I tab it to come back to later.

2. Review the tabs and take notes.

After I’ve completed the book, I go back through it and review each tab, taking notes on the ones I still think are important.  Sometimes I type up a complete quote, other times I summarize an argument.  Sometimes something that seemed important on the first pass turns out not to be a critical thing so I skip the tab.  I remove the tabs as I go and either save them for the next book or toss them if they aren’t sticky anymore.

Side note: That turquoise thing in the picture is a book weight–it’s the best thing ever for taking notes, keeping a cookbook open while you’re using a recipe, holding your place when you have to jump up suddenly, and so forth.  Best gift idea ever.  I highly recommend them!

3. File the notes so you can find them again!

The downside to taking notes longhand is that it’s much more difficult to sort them so the odds of your finding a set of notes when you want them plummets.  I keep a folder on my computer for book notes, with subfolders for different categories.  That way, when I want to refer to something about parenting or time management or what have you, I know where to start looking.

4. Share the notes.

My husband and I don’t often read the same books.  But when I’ve taken notes on something I can send them to him or read to him from them and we can still have great discussions on the ideas or topics I’m reading about.  Talking about those concepts helps to solidify them in my head and clarify my thinking, and it’s a good way to connect.  I might not be able to get my husband interested in reading a 400 page book on writing, but that doesn’t mean he can’t talk over particular points with me.  (This goes both ways, as I don’t generally spend time reading about baseball, presidential history, or the vagaries of electoral politics like he does!)

5. Put the notes where you can see them until you’re done thinking them through.

Sometimes I’m done thinking about a topic once I’ve made my tab notes.  Other times I need longer to mull something over.  When that happens, I either leave the document open on my computer and re-read it, or I print it out and clip it to the refrigerator by my work space (I use “work space” loosely, it’s mostly a stack of project folders, books, and where I plug in my laptop to charge it!).  This helps to keep the topic top of mind for me even if I’ve moved on to reading other books.

This method of tabbing, note taking, and reviewing works for me, but I’m interested to hear what works for you!  What do you do to read so it counts?

18 thoughts on “How To Read So It Counts

  1. I used to take notes as I’d read, generally onto whatever paper I could find. That was … stunningly unsuccessful. Like you said, it slowed me down so much that I’d quit, or even if I stuck with it, I’d lose the notes or end up not having great place to store them.

    After our discussion about this, I’ve started using those flags, and then typing up the notes in a Word document so it’s easy to store & find again. One of the biggest hassles? I need a bookweight! (I was using my glasses case but it wasn’t quite heavy enough). The other, unanticipated problem was my daughter thinking the tabs were fun to pull out from the book. Before I was finished reading it. 😉

    I’ve only typed up the notes on one book, and flagged another one & am ready to type them up (letting it all stew a bit more to see if that makes a difference on what I pull from it), so the jury is still out as to if this is a good long-term solution for me. I’m hopeful though!

    Your point #4 is one that I hadn’t anticipated, until pulling together my notes from the first book. I can easily see sharing my notes with my husband for some of the books I’ve read that I’d love to talk about with him.

  2. Tabs. Wow. I think you just rocked my world. I tend to read a book, pausing to copy/write into my journal as I feel the need. At times it can be painstakingly slow. But tabs…revisting material to see if it’s still something to “keep…” Wow. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Reading the notes again before putting the book away is key. Whether the notes were on paper (I take paper notes for paper books) or electronic on Kindle, they go into my Evernote. Evernote can read handwriting, so either way my notes will now come up in my searches. If I want to be very sure I sometimes print key words in the margin.

  4. For subjects that I know I will reference again, I tend to collect data in a word doc and later organize it. For example, a few years ago I decided to research some herbs and find what medical studies I could about them. As I found relevant information, I typed it into a word doc. Later I came back, organized and typed it neatly. That gave me 2-3 exposures to the material and I have a reference for the future.

    But I finally came to peace with myself after reading some books about intuition. Intuitive thinking provides the correct answer just as or more often than careful reasoning and gets there quicker. It just can’t be proved. Pros and cons. But I am definitely an intuitive thinker.

    I read far and wide but don’t retain a lot of details. I’ve gone through seasons of laboriously attempting to retain factoids (mentally or in notes) from books, but still, a week later all I remembered was a general impression of the book. Yet even if I can’t remember the details, my subconscious seems to be imprinted by the book. My thinking and perceptions are impacted, even if I can’t remember why exactly.

    When I came to peace that this is just the way my mind operates and that it is a different wiring with it’s own set of strengths and weaknesses, reading became a lot more fun again. So I will never be a Newt Gingrich spouting exhaustive names and dates and factoids! My callings in life do not seem to require that aptitude nearly as much as the aptitude I do have. 🙂

  5. I started using the tab system last year after reading one of your blog posts, and I can’t tell you how helpful it has been–no more frustration for writing as I read or guilt for not writing as I read. Those little stickies are pricey, but reusing them helps, and the dollar store generally has them for much less than Walmart, though you do have to watch the package size.
    I don’t have many local friends who are avid readers, so I struggle to have the discussions I would like. I am thankful to have a reading / listening husband. And, I’m thankful for thoughtful friends who regularly post interesting book reviews on their blogs. Thanks, Catherine.

    1. I haven’t looked for tabs at the dollar store, but I’ll check that out. I got a few sets in the Walmart back to school section this year that were of the small clear reuseable sort and they were a dollar each. They came in sets of four for a dollar. Next time I see a deal on some I will let you know! I’m glad you find them helpful!

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