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?