For those who love books, it is an easy (and potentially destructive) temptation to skim and try to finish a text without really owning its contents. Here, the goal is to make a mental check and be able to say, “I read that,” without really, really reading it. Because I enjoy reading so much and because it is almost effortless for me to just let my eyes scroll through pages…I am guilty of this sort of mindlessness all the time. And then saying, (ok, boasting) “I read that.”
I used to enjoy reading for quantity… reading as much as possible, often as fast as possible. Honesty alert – I still do this sometimes. Especially when I come across something I feel like I’m “supposed to have read”. And for the record, this isn’t always bad. We can all sometimes grasp the gist of a book quite well with little effort – and sometimes our time is more valuable than a wrestling with the content. As I age however, I realize the importance of reading for quality. When I take the time to pick up a book I feel has something to offer me, I need to give it the time and attention it deserves. Therefore, I find myself reading less … but in a weird twist, actually reading more, if you know what I mean.
The goal of reading shouldn’t be just to finish the work, but to engage with it – whatever that looks like for you. Sometimes it looks like … acquiring information. (Sometimes just because it has been assigned or would be something good to know.) Other times it looks like a conversation between two friends as they warmly discuss something they mutually love. It may resemble a wrestling match at times when the author and reader disagree over something, each trying to best the other. Or it may be an experience where the reader is introduced to something totally new, their imaginations pushed to new and wider places – and it takes a while to figure out what the book is doing to their mind and heart. At least that’s how it looks for me sometimes.
With this as an introduction, I want to address potential ways one can hold on to what one reads. While reading a lot of text, a lot of material and a lot of pages, how do I ensure that I retain the important information in a way that changes me? Or at least so that I am open in such a way that there is the potential for it to change me? Or that I can access important points later if I need it? Books have been written on how to read books (sort of ironic…) but here are my thoughts on it and practices with it.
1. It’s not all important. A while back, I heard Rick Warren talk about his reading habits. He said, “Not all chapters are created equal.” The point was that even though he is a voracious reader, he doesn’t feel obligated to read an entire book, because some of its content is more important or more applicable or more relevant than the rest. So he picks and chooses often. I took this to heart. When reading a book, sometimes I go cover to cover and dig in. Even if I have to make myself, because I think the material is important. Sometimes I skim the parts that I think aren’t as important. And I’m totally ok with this.
2. Read with a highlighter. Yes, I’ve heard that reading with a highlighter isn’t always a good way to retain information.(Especially if it is a black sharpie:) But it sort of works for me. It allows me to slow down when I recognize an important concept or sentence. It allows me to combine being a visual learner (using the eyes) with being a kinesthetic learner (using the body and movement), hitting two different modes of learning. And it gives me a way to later find what I thought was important as I was reading it. Sometimes I will make notes in the margins, but because I often sit or lay down comfortably while reading, my physical position makes this difficult. I’ve gotten quite good at highlighting a book while flat on my back.
3. Blogging. No secret here…if I find an idea intriguing…I often write about it on the blog. I think of it as an ongoing discussion with the material…and a way to invite Jesus into the conversation as well. If I can articulate an idea in writing, I own it at a completely different level. If I didn’t blog regularly, I suspect writing key ideas, quotes or thought-provoking questions in a journal would do the same thing – create another opportunity and mode of learning with which to filter the information. But I know not everyone blogs, so I also make…
4. Journal lists. I don’t always have time to sit down and formulate a whole blog post on something I’m thinking about. I don’t always have time to sit down and journal an idea thoroughly when it hits either. So sometimes I start a list in my journal. It can be of ideas, concepts, questions, phrases…things I want to remember for later. It is a shortcut that doesn’t take much time and allows me to revisit something later if I want. For instance, a list for me might be, “What I’m Thinking About Right Now…” or “Things I Would Like To Talk Over With A Friend…” or “Scriptures to Re-read When I Get More Time…” or “This Author/Book Has Made Me Think About…” These lists often have their genesis in the books I’m reading.
5. Conversations. One of the easiest ways to more clearly remember something I’ve read is to talk it over with a friend. I often carry what I’m reading around, to coffee or lunch dates, to church, etc. If I get there first, I nonchalantly place it on the table to see what sort of response it gets. This allows me an easy conversation starter. Or…I ask someone else, “I’m reading something and thinking about it ________ could I get your opinion on it?”
6. Trust God to bring to mind what I will need when I need it. I know that pastor types often have intricate filing systems to store what they read for later sermon prep. I’m not a pastor. I’m just type A housewife who loves to learn. And even though I publicly speak occasionally, the idea of a filing system seems to duplicate material – because the material is sitting right there in the book on my shelf (or in my Kindle). Instead, I read, keep the book handy, and trust that if God wants me to revisit the information at some point – either for myself or for teaching prep, then He will jog my memory. So far, He’s been very reliable:). And then, I am free to enjoy reading something rather than stressing too much over, “What if I forget this?”
The reality of course is that we forget much of what we read. Which is ok. Even if I remember just a bit of what I read, it is still more than if I’d never read anything. And, the practice of actively reading something is incredibly valuable. It keeps my mind sharp, creates opportunities for God to speak to me through it and inevitably changes me.