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How to retain more from the books you read
I’ve been writing and podcasting about books for some time now—mostly either reviews or interviews—and one of my main goals is to help readers to get more out of the books I recommend, I’m not interested in just letting you know this book was great or I loved this and so you might too (you can read more about my process here). Though picking up a book and taking the time to read is necessary to absorb and digest the contents, reading alone does not naturally beget understanding. In fact, with literacy rates decreasing it seems unlikely that seeds of understanding are finding purchase in readers at large. It’s a wonderful time to be a writer.
Other than a short spell in my teens, I’ve always loved reading and over the years I’ve learned to hone my spider-sense for important information and tidbits which are worth retaining, as well as detecting themes and those odd particularities that only seem to belong to writers and authors. There is no replacement for an experience like this, and so when people ask me how they can read more, or read well, or just read at all, it can be tempting to just say, “keep reading.” Though I think that’s part of the answer, and I believe that—as with any skill—the long game and the goals which come with that are important, it smacks of discouragement for those just starting off.
If you fit the following criteria:
Reading this Article
Then you’ve probably lost your keys at some point and you know how frustrating that can be. As you rummage through pockets, bags, nooks, and crannies you end up finding all sorts of objects you weren’t looking for, I find this brings up mixed emotions, on the one hand, it’s great that they’ve turned up, but why now when I could really use my keys!
What if it wasn’t just keys, what if, off the top of my head, you were moving house and suddenly your alan key, electric screwdriver, and knife have all gone missing?
While looking out for these three objects which you know are definitely in the house somewhere, how often do you reckon you’ll drop your attention? After all, you’ve got three hours until you have to move out!
Now on the hunt—with my aptitude for observation now heightened to the point that I could join the Avengers—my passport, National Insurance Number, oddly enough my keys, a box of paints, a couple of trinkets from our wedding, and not one, but five alan keys turn up, as well as the aforementioned electric screwdriver, and knife… in this purely hypothetical scenario I mean.
This is an article about reading I promise.
What makes you pick up a book? Until recently the books I picked up fell into three categories:
Fictional Books I think will interest me
Non-Fiction Books that will edify or inform me
Non-Fiction Books that will help me to disciple, edify, and inform others
Recently though, I added a fourth to that list:
4. A Book I’ve been sent or asked to review
Though that might not be a scenario you’re likely to find yourself in, I’ve found anecdotally that most people at the start of their reading journey, or just getting back in, usually find themselves holding books given them by, or recommended by, friends, family, or someone they respect. With Gentle & Lowly, Rembrandt is in the Wind, or Women of the Word now in hand, readers are left to navigate foreign territory full of unknown variables.
Rather than handing you the keys to success, I contend that looking for lost keys might actually be a better approach.
If you fit the following criteria:
Reading this Article
Then you don’t know everything.
Sorry to have to wake you up to that truth, I know it’s a surprise, but I felt it needed to be said. Thankfully, if you don’t know everything, there’s mostly something in this book that you don’t already know.
I don’t have three specific questions for you that you can ask every time to read any book better, but instead, I suggest that you should take the time to find three questions you’d like to be answered by this book.
I’ve found that whilst reading for review I’ve learned so much more than I’d intended because when asking questions like:
Who is the intended audience?
Does the author fulfil his/her mission statement for the book by the end?
Which quotes stand out?
I’ve been wide-eyed enough for my peripheral vision to catch other answers I would have missed, to questions I’d not thought of asking. Like looking for an alan key, an electric screwdriver, and a knife, you will end up opening boxes and cupboards you might have been tempted to walk past and thereby find something even better than you’d hoped.
First things first, you need to read. I suggest you read three things:
The Contents Page
The Introduction (note: not a foreword written by another writer, but the author’s introduction)
On occasion, I’ve had to encourage readers to forget the title of a book entirely because the book inside has nothing to do with the title—either the publisher has decided on it, or the book evolved after the title was first written down, whatever happened, titles are not always the best way to judge a book. By reading just those few pages, probably five at most, you’ll get an idea of what the author wants to talk about and what they’ll be able to teach you. You can then sit down, pray, and then consider some questions.
Don’t be too broad
This will take some practice, but try not to be too broad. Let’s say this is a book on Marriage, don’t ask:
What is marriage?
What makes a good marriage?
Who should I marry?
Why? For one thing, they aren’t good questions, but they are also so broad that to answer them in-depth you may need to memorise the book. Instead, be more vulnerable, be more specific.
How can I be a better Husband?
What struggles has the author had in his/her own marriage and what did they learn?
Which stories, verses, and quotes encouraged me?
These questions might be more difficult to answer, but you’re far more likely to remember the answers and they’ll have your eyes primed to look out for more specific details.
Ask Your Own Questions
Reading books to help others still falls under this bracket, but don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to, if you’re not interested, why ask?
Someone may have given you this book and said, “I learned how to be a better small group leader by reading this book.” If you’re not a small group leader though, asking a question like:
How can I be a better small group leader?
That would be fruitless.
Though that might seem like a silly example, I’ve seen people read books with similar thoughts in mind. Don’t do that, adopt your loved one’s excitement about the book, but not their specific question. Find your own questions.
Sit the Author Down
If the author was sat across from you, after reading the introduction, the blurb, and the contents page, what would you ask?
Are you intrigued by the reason they chose to write about this topic? Are you encouraged by their testimony? Are you impressed by the author of their foreword? Do you want to learn to write like them?
Whatever your motive, interest, or initial thoughts, let those inform your questions, the author has spent months if not years pouring themselves into this book, there’s a high probability they’ve anticipated your questions and answered them during that process. Ask them questions and expect them to answer.
To help you to put this into practice, I’ve attached below a simple bookmark you can print off and fill out with your three questions. Whenever you read that book, pull the bookmark out and read the questions first, remind yourself what you’re looking for and then start to read. Once you’ve finished the book, leave the bookmark in, in the future when you come back, reading those questions again is far more likely to bring memories of the book back to you, and it will help you to remember exactly what you loved about the book in the first place.
This is a very different article from my usual reviews and bible studies, but I hope it has been an encouragement to you. Now, go and read.
Grace and Peace,
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P.S. If you enjoyed this article, part two of the series is now out: