How can I get more out of my reading life?
January 8, 2010 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I spend a lot of time reading for both work and pleasure yet I have a hard time translating this to my everyday life, for example being able to remember key quotes or even retaining main points of books I have read. Do people here have any tips for retaining and utilizing content read in books, especially novels?

I have come to realize that even with my favorite books, and the ones that I consider most influential to me, I can remember at most 2 or 3 sentences and a few vague this normal? Should I really be spending so much time on an activity that goes in one ear and out the other as soon as I put it down? How do people who can quote passages from Shakespeare from memory do it? Is it really just a matter of reading the same thing over and over again, or is there some sort of trick to it? It really bugs me when a book comes up in conversation that I read a year ago and I have nothing relevant to add to the discussion. Thanks for your ideas!
posted by the foreground to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard people use a fluo marker or just a pencil to mark passages they like, also earmarks on pages they want to remember. Every once in a while they would flip through their favorite books.

For me, that makes reading feel like studying. I would do that if the goal were to learn something; if the goal is to enjoy yourself, just forget about that.

People can't honestly quote Shakespeare (unless their field is literature or theatre). Yeah, some people know stuff like "a rose by another other name would be just as sweet", or maybe even literally what Romeo said, but they can't cite more than one or two passages.
posted by wolfr at 3:47 AM on January 9, 2010

It really bugs me when a book comes up in conversation that I read a year ago and I have nothing relevant to add to the discussion.

I wonder if it might be a difference in reading styles?
For example, when you're studying for an exam, you read for content and memorization, a more analytical style.
When you read for pleasure, you're reading for more of an emotional experience, and therefore not trying to remember for discussion at a later date.

Perhaps keeping a small notebook and pen handy while reading, and jotting down a few key phrases, quotes or passages might help with the memorization, internalization and recall at a later date.

Also, perhaps joining a book club/group, where you discuss the reading material at length might help you flick the switch.

There are books that I consider extremely personal and part of my life ("A Confederacy of Dunces", "A Prayer for Owen Meany", "The Grapes of Wrath") but I doubt I could pull out a direct quote even with a gun pointed at my head.
Doesn't make them any less important.

No matter what you do, just make sure you're enjoying the books! That's what's important.
posted by willmize at 9:32 AM on January 8, 2010

Anything I care to remember for the long term, I write down in notebooks, otherwise, it is soon long forgotten or misremembered. This way, I can go back for later reference without having to whip out the book itself.
posted by SoulOnIce at 9:33 AM on January 8, 2010

I just finished reading The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen. It's a quick read and deals a lot with how to get more practical enjoyment out of reading. It is a bit hokey, though, but I like his ideas of crafting a well-curated to-read list.

My to-read list is currently about 200 books long, but he offers advice on how to notate certain books on the list so you always have exactly what you want to read when.

Anyway, he also offers some practical advice about marking up books for later reference and memorization. You can read a bit more about it on this blog post which is where I first read about the book.
posted by Brittanie at 9:38 AM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have come to realize that even with my favorite books, and the ones that I consider most influential to me, I can remember at most 2 or 3 sentences and a few vague this normal?

I've always been a really voracious reader, and in fact majored in literature in college, but I don't have the recall for scenes, plot points, or quotes that others seem to. I can remember well the tone, theme, and impact of a book, but not always the specifics. I've never let it bother me. Of course it's worthwhile if you enjoy the time you spend with literature and get something out of it. I think memory for detail is just a quality that varies among people.

I am able to memorize, and have often memorized poems and quotes that I really want to know by heart. The two issues don't seem to be related: I suspect that, cognitively, there's nothing wrong with my memory function, but I don't normally ask my mind to tag detail-level events in most stories for later recall. If you are able to memorize things when you do want to, there's not necessarily a problem.
posted by Miko at 9:49 AM on January 8, 2010

(now that I've posted and been able to read the other comments)

In recent years I've been using the LivingSocial books function through Facebook. When I finish a book, I write a review and post it to my profile. This kind of externalizes the memory of the book - what I thought about it, anyway - so I can access it any time. And the process of writing about each book is probably cementing the content better in my mind, as well. Maybe try that, or GoodReads, or LibraryThing or some other web app with a similar function?
posted by Miko at 9:52 AM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a literature professor, and the same thing happens to me, unless I do one of two things:

1) Read to teach. Books I teach, I read differently, and I prep differently in my mind. I think what I'm going to say about it, I use page flags (the little post-it-like gadgets) to mark quotations I plan to drop in class, I scribble outlines of plot and work. In short, I'm pre-digesting the thing for other people. Once I've prepped to teach, the teaching itself helps fix in the memory, but it's not necessary. I pretty much have the thing in outline, and it can be quickly refreshed in a few minutes next time I teach. You might try joining a book club and prepping clever things to say. I've found that my students tend to remember books and arguments that they wrote responses to--so blog entries and reviews might work.

2) Make a commonplace book. Scribble quotes, places, and a few sentences about context for anything you want to be able to trot out in conversation later. The writers of the nineteenth century, who were well known for this kind of reading-enriched conversation, did this a lot.
posted by LucretiusJones at 10:22 AM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a great memory for general stories but never for direct quotes. If I read a great book, I can retell the story to a friend in its entirety if I do it soon enough after finishing the book. I, luckily, have a couple of friends who love this game and like to be told stories. I find if I do this, I'm able to retain more in the long term.

To second what Miko said, If I write about a book (a review of fiction, or an critical essay if its non fiction) I remember it really well. I remember almost anything I take the time to write about. So maybe set up a blog and review or write about your favorites.

When it comes to memorization, I have memorized long passages of classics or poetry but it takes a lot of commitment and work. It doesn't come easy to me.
posted by dchrssyr at 10:28 AM on January 8, 2010

My History teacher at school used to make us copy whole pages out of textbooks, word for word, by hand. It was boring as hell, but he did it with the specific aim of getting us to remember what was in the book. He said you were 15x more likely to remember something you had written than something you had read - a figure I'm sure he pulled out of his ... thin air.

But, the sentiment stuck with me and it does seem (in my case) to have some truth. If I can't be bothered to write stuff down in a notebook, I at least underline it or circle it or write "ace" in the margin or something. The context-switch from consumer to producer is what helps, imo, and forcing myself to articulate why I think it's worth remembering this particular bit.

Aside: I love getting a book from the 2nd hand shop and finding it full of other people's margin notes and underlinings.
posted by mjg123 at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2010

He said you were 15x more likely to remember something you had written than something you had read - a figure I'm sure he pulled out of his ... thin air.

He might have - but I was taught to do this in a music performance class, to memorize lyrics, and it does really work. That teacher told us they taught it in Army intelligence...can't document that, though.
posted by Miko at 10:57 AM on January 8, 2010

Do you enjoy writing? What I started doing is to sit with a book and a cheap notepad, penning down lots of quotes — bonus handwriting practice! Then I try to work on these quotes in different ways, transcribing them to quote pages in my proper notebook where the gems go, to quote files on my computer with another set of selection criteria, and to a hierarchical notes file (using emacs's org-mode) with room for personal musings. Also I try to work stuff into blog posts, conversations, etc. Also reading internet stuff about the book in question, related books, etc, etc. This kind of circulation through different media helps me integrate material.

I like to do the extraction part in the simplest, roughest way possible — if I leave any room for writing in my own words, or reorganizing, or browsing the web, I never get through the whole book, but being focused on extracting important paragraphs is actually a reading aid for me.

Only some books need this treatment! I do it most with interesting nonfiction stuff. Sometimes I just read a book through straight and then go back and study it.
posted by mbrock at 11:05 AM on January 8, 2010

More on the Commonplace Book that LucretiusJones mentions above.
posted by jquinby at 11:55 AM on January 8, 2010

Hi all -- this is a fascinating conversation. A friend of mine has created an online tool that I use, and find quite well adapted, for tracking quotes from long-form articles (e.g. new yorker, NY Review of Books, Atlantic and the like). I tend to favor these articles over non-fiction books, many of which were shorter, less noisy articles first.

I read them in print, then pull them up on the web to highlight and quickly grab quotes. The nice thing about this system is that it keeps the quote in its original context, with surrounding text, so you can sort of jump right back to what you were reading.

The tool is called Over-vu. It's in early beta, but my friend's email is on the homepage. If you like the screencast, feel free to drop him a line and ask for an invite.
posted by dgrobinson at 7:48 AM on January 9, 2010

People can't honestly quote Shakespeare... they can't cite more than one or two passages.

That's not true.
posted by Miko at 8:57 AM on January 9, 2010

I like to talk about books with other people, so I read books that my friends recommend and recommend books that I liked. This helps in multiple ways:

1. Talking about the book, and especially writing an email about it, condenses my impression of it and makes me remember the aspects that I considered most important.

2. If a friend reads the same book as me, I now have another person who also remembers the book, whom I can ask if I forget something.

3. I associate the book with the time and place in which I read it, and the discussions I had with other people about it. So book-memory is tied to real-life memory.
posted by k. at 11:26 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Shorter chunks, reviewing what you've read, and taking notes help you remember things. So every day, review what you read the day before, read a short section, and take notes on what you read. Wash, rinse, repeat. Unfun? Hmm, maybe.

Does it really go in one out one ear and out the other, or do they give you "feelings" that you hold on to? Certain books I remember fondly but vaguely (Ulysses, Kitchen Confidential, the KJV). They were worth reading. Other books were, perhaps, not worth reading.
posted by kathrineg at 9:39 PM on January 10, 2010

People are sometimes pretty amazed by how much I remember about books and poems, but I'm not an especially diligent reader, I don't think. What I have is a really good trick. Here is my trick.

You know how you'll read a book and run into one sentence that really defines the whole deal for you? Maybe it's a sentence like "Isn't it pretty to think so?", one that encapsulates your emotions, what the characters are feeling. Or maybe it's a godawful mess of a clause structure that makes you wonder at the fact that anyone published the book. Either way, love it or hate it, when you run across one of these defining sentences, make a note of it and memorize it when you're done the book.

Whenever you want to think about that book, remember the sentence in your head. You remember a lot more about books than you think you do, but memory is really associative. Having that sentence clattering around as a sort of bookmark can instantly bring some associations back to you.

Also, once you get in the habit of memorizing little chunks, you'll start to naturally pull in little dribs and drabs of the text. I'm looking over at All the Pretty Horses on my bookshelf and I know that I have memorized "He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all." Okay but now that I think about it I can remember the lilies on the opening page that "leaned so palely in the waisted cutglass etc", I think, and I can remember Blevins shooting the wallet, the stabbing in the prison. I can't remember everything but a lot is coming back to me.

Start tomorrow. Eventually you will be carrying around all of these beautiful little charms, you'll be able to think of them fondly when you're walking home, you'll remember more, and you'll sound good when you have hand-wavy literary discussions.
posted by voronoi at 12:41 PM on January 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I want to apologize for being unecessarily snippy above with my "That's not true" - I just wanted to say that it's not at all unrealistic to want to be able to remember plot lines and characters, quote some apt phrases, reel off a sonnet or two. Since the OP wants to do it I think she shouldn't give up, and wouldn't want her to assume that it can't be done or that only literature professors can do it. But sorry for the terse and unhelpful response to that point.
posted by Miko at 1:34 PM on January 14, 2010

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