Please teach me how to read
July 10, 2013 3:02 PM   Subscribe

I don't know how to read. Or, rather, I don't know what to do to keep track of the information in difficult, complicated texts. I'm pretty sure someone tried to teach me this when I was in, say, middle school, but I certainly never picked it up. So, now I'm asking Metafilter: how does reading work?

I'm an educated, (semi-)successful woman with a professional job that involves a lot of reading. And it is important for me to be able to keep track of what I have read in the past. I need to be able to remember what point was made by what author and in what written piece, and I need to be able to do this months and years after I've originally read the piece.

It occurred to me recently, I suck at doing this. Somehow, I've managed to get a PhD without ever actually learning how to read successfully. Only now is it really becoming a problem, as the amount I'm trying to read and retain has skyrocketed.

It also occurred to me recently that there are probably a lot of useful tools and techniques for doing this. I would like to learn these tools and techniques.

I know I should be writing stuff down as I read. I'm just not usually sure what I should be writing down, or how I can make my written down notes be useful. The only way I know how to handle it is this: as I read, I keep a notepad; when I come to a section of text that seems like it's pretty significant, I put down the page number in the notepad along with a line or two of the section. So, I end up with a notepad filled with page numbers and elliptical quotations. This is very useful when I end up having to go back and find a specific quote I remember is in a specific text... But it is a lot less useful when I find myself saying, "Ooh! I remember reading something that $TOPIC a month or so ago! ...Now where was that?"

So, what can you suggest? What do you do to help keep track of the information you read, to better remember it, to keep track of it, etc? What better way is there for me to take notes? What other methods are there, other than just taking notes? What resources can you point me to, that will help me become better at this sort of task?
posted by meese to Education (15 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There is actually a book (also available in audio form) that covers the different levels at which to read a book as well as some strategies used at each of those levels to get the best comprehension. How to Read a Book. My dad swears by it.
posted by goggie at 3:12 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I will take notes if I want to absorb and fully comprehend what I'm reading. I may make bullet point lists, fragment sentences, or crib word for word. I'm useless at maintaining notebooks -- they usually get lost after a week or two -- but I've found Evernote to be invaluable.

I don't have a photographic memory. But, if I have an understanding of the context of the information I'll retain it better. I think that must be nearly universal. If I need to remember something technical, I'll read up on its related subject.

A technique I use if I'm trying to get to grips with a concept I'm having difficulty understanding, is to try and explain that concept back to myself as if I were a teacher speaking to a student. I often find that I'll ask questions back to myself, revealing holes in my knowledge or requiring me to rethink the subject -- leading to a deeper comprehension. Same if I'm trying to drill something into memory, or I might quiz myself until I feel confident that the information has crystallised.
posted by popcassady at 3:19 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe this is weird, but I mentally rehearse explaining interesting points to an imaginary interlocutor as I read. I also try to use genuinely interesting points in conversation within a few days, if possible. And I pretty much always write very brief notes on what I've read, preferably but less often in an amusing form in, say, an email to a friend, but at a minimum in a short Goodreads review.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:27 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you've got a PhD you're not THAT bad at this. Just a different spin on advice already given but - paraphrase or outline main points of a text. I know an increasing challenge for me is finding a mentally quiet space to read, be it for study or pleasure. Get away from computers, TV, etc.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:29 PM on July 10, 2013

Rather than simply reading the words, you should practice predicting the meaning of what you are reading. This involves a different mind set--focusing on ideas rather than words. Forget grammar for the moment. Good readers don't necessarily read all the words, let alone all the words in the correct order. Instead, they focus on the author's meaning--predicting what may come next--so they often will skim the text, jumping around from place to place to see if their prediction is correct. If the context appears to prove them right, then they file that idea in their head and go on to the next sentence or paragraph. The ideas in that next paragraph must fit somehow with the previous one. If they become confused, they go back and analyze the previous text again. Sometimes they are confused because their experience doesn't match the writer's. Sometimes they are confused because the passage is not well written. If you were to record the eye movements of a good reader, they would appear almost random rather than typewriter-like. If you do take notes, do so in your own words--paraphrase--so that you may be sure that you understand the ideas rather than the words.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:34 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I only just started doing this systematically because I went back to school and realized I was pretty soon swimming in half-remembered important citations I needed from books I could no longer remember the author of.

So, I got a bunch of small Post-Its. As I read, I stick a Post-It on any page with a section I may need to remember, and I underline that section (I don't have a problem writing in books I own - for library books, I just position the Post-It pretty close to the lines and use arrows). I might write a couple words of comment on the Post-It about the topic or how I plan to use it. I don't keep any other notes while reading.

Then, when I'm done with the book, I go to Zotero, which I just learned about which is the bee's knees for writing and research. I make a new biblographic entry for the book, write a short summary of the book and major points, enter the tags, and then in the "Notes" section I go back and transcribe any of the quotes I still think are good, and the page numbers. For major points, I might restate the author's thesis, summarize in a sentence or two the content of each chapter or section, and then write a little evaluation of what I thought they did well and what they might have missed or I still have questions about.

This is all searchable. So as I keep reading stuff, I get to build a cumulative annotated bibliography of everything I've read, and I can find everything on food, for instance, just by filtering with a search. Or if I half-remember a quotation, I can find it via search.

It's saving my bacon.
posted by Miko at 3:35 PM on July 10, 2013 [20 favorites]

I came here just to recommend How to Read a Book (recommended above by goggie) - a book that I am perpetually re-reading for tips and advice, it's chock full of them.

I don't know of any tools (technological) to assist with this - I believe it is just one of those things...

Personally I try to write in the margins - nothing crazy or groundbreaking, just the sort of margin notes that used to be printed in some books 100 years ago. This creates a link with the text that I can vaguely conceptualise months and years later and it allows me to go back to the text and find it relatively easily. (I can usually remember the book concerned and the word or two that I wrote and which side of the page it was on.)

If I had the time and self-motivation I suppose I would keep some sort of super-index as well, or summary notes of each book when I finish it. Part of the reason that I don't do this is that there are a lot of books that I don't actually finish, per se.

But, seriously, How to Read a Book. It's awesome.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 3:37 PM on July 10, 2013

I do a ton of reading for my job. A ton. I read mostly articles, papers or reports and not as much books.

I've started to print all the articles I read and highlight parts I like in them. I'll also make notes in the margins of papers. Papers that don't get highlights or notes in the margins go in the recycling or trash when I'm done with them. Papers that have highlights go into a three-ring binder which I have loosely organized by topic. I slide a sheet of paper into the cover of the binder with the sections listed and if I ever get more organized, I'll list the name of each paper under the section headings.

I also have a separate three ring binder specifically for newspaper articles that I cut out. I now have a total of four massive three ring binders.

Because I do projects on certain topics, my binder system has spilled over into a file folder system. I use regular manila file folders but I use the ones that have the sides so I can fit lots of papers in them and they won't slide out.

So on one topic I have all my papers and reports on that topic that I've taken out of my binder, plus some extras I've printed from my internet research and I've just thrown them into a manila folder. I have about three or four file folders going right now. I think I'll just keep them because there are too many papers to reasonably fit back into the binders.

For things where I need to make detailed notes to get a better grasp of it myself I have a notebook (again organized by topic) OR I write up a word document summarizing everything which I then put at the front of all the papers in the file folder.

This probably sounds like a lot but it's made my life SO MUCH EASIER than just having a million huge piles of papers sitting around. Organizing stuff by topic makes everything much easier to find.

This has gotten pretty long so I'll move on to how to retain what you read. For some reason, between all the blogs I read daily I've been seeing this topic come up a couple of times in the last week. Of course I can't remember where! But the gist of the one article I did read was to try to figure out what it was that you're going to read ahead of time. Like if you're reading a research report, what do you think the findings will be? How do you think they measured the results? Whatever. Then read the thing to see if you're right.

If you want to learn something you need to teach it. This is basically about reading comprehension. My fun project I've been doing lately is writing white papers. It started because someone challenged me to write a white paper and he would publish it. So I go into an information gathering project and find out as much as I can about something and then I try to organize it into a cohesive essay. I haven't actually written a white paper yet (I just started the whitepaper way of doing things at the end of April), mainly because I'm still working on several different topics - but I have gotten to know the subject matter REALLY WELL. I think my problem is more of trying to put it all together in a nice package, which is a separate issue.

I hope this helps somewhat. Here is another good thing from the excellent Farnam Street blog - How To Read A Book (which on preview, I see was already linked - my link is a blog post).
posted by triggerfinger at 3:39 PM on July 10, 2013

Best answer: "Ooh! I remember reading something that $TOPIC a month or so ago! ...Now where was that?"

I would recommend not a note-taking system, but a reference management system - there are dozens of software solutions, but of course in the old days we did this with card catalogues. When I was a kid, my dad would cut out articles from magazines/journals and simply put them in folders based on topic. Then when he thought, "What was that tip I read on TIG welding?" he'd go to his "Welding - tips" folder and skim through the few articles till he found the one he was looking for.

Personally, the software is easier for me to use.
posted by muddgirl at 3:45 PM on July 10, 2013

Miko has it.

I am famous for my retentive memory and being able to pull out the reference I want, but the way I do it is by engaging with the text as Miko describes and keeping, whenever possible, an electronic record of it.

Failing that, use triggerfinger's approach but scan everything in online, and use a format like Word that is searchable for the summary document for your scanned files.
posted by bearwife at 4:10 PM on July 10, 2013

Nthing How to Read a Book.
posted by Silvertree at 5:36 PM on July 10, 2013

I used to keep a "Dialectic Journal" for everything important that I read.

I'd begin each chapter with a fresh two-page spread. On the left page I'd summarize and/or outline the text as well as I could. On the right page I'd pull key quotes, jot down questions I wanted to follow up later, make note of any ideas I wanted to ask about during lecture, write down definitions of words I had to look up, etc. If I needed another left page for a long or dense chapter, I just flipped to a new fresh spread and continued.

Basically it was the original on the left, me on the right. In most of the journals, which I still have, the left pages are filled and the right pages are pretty barren.

I used Composition books a lot, but other small convenient journals or notebooks worked, too.

These days I'd still do it by hand, if it came up, and transfer either to Evernote or similar, or Zotero, mentioned above, because of its easy bibliographic tools. (I wish Zotero was a standalone app and not a Firefox plugin.)
posted by notyou at 7:04 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you're more a computer or paper person; computers make this far easier in many ways but I find I learn a lot better with the actual process of transcription so here is my low-tech system.*


Buy a bunch. At the top write the title of the article/book. Then include:
Brief Summary
Key Quotes

I group these by subject so I can easily look up "poetry criticism" or "neurobiology", but I do have a word document where I also type just the title, author, and tags. That makes it easy for me to search for eg "hypothalamus regulation" and find the book and three articles I've read on the subject, then go pull those index cards out for better detail.

This card provides all of the information I need to determine if the original source document is going to be useful, and usually jogs my memory on pretty specific details.

I make this card for everything I read. Now, I also have commonplace book binders. (I use a binder because it's easy to fill with looseleaf, carting around my collection of childhood composition books looks pretty but is a pain in the buttinski.) The papers I use for all kinds of things; quotes I hear I like, book recommendations I want to remember later, ect. But I will also record specific responses to a text if I deem the book important enough. Those are all on their own pages.

Those "book reviews" I keep in a separate binder to correspond with the index cards. They include notes that I take as I go: important quotations, themes I see developing, arguments (explicit or implicit) made by the author, arguments I have with the text, ect. I will often write a brief (eg half a page) "paper" on my final response, one that is basically a thesis tree (point, counter point, resolution, repeat) that I would theoretically use to write a real paper.

Doing this makes me REALLY pay attention to a text and I'll remember the details much much better down the road. If I don't, glancing at the card and/or through these papers brings enough back that I don't need to reread the entire book for almost all purposes.

The "How to Read a Book" includes some of this, I'd also really recommend it!

(*Disclaimer: I just use this system due to bookish obsession, not for any practical purposes like a PhD or career.)
posted by blue_and_bronze at 8:53 AM on July 11, 2013

People above talked about referencing a lot, so this is a bit different, but you seem to be looking at retention first and foremost ("I need to be able to remember what point was made by what author and in what written piece, and I need to be able to do this months and years after I've originally read the piece."). In case of material where retention relies on building framework of simple factual statements (example below) SR (spaced repetition) software does a great job. Instead of pontificating on it's abstract advantages, let me try to give an example:

When I read a book that's concepts/facts-heavy I 'atomize' it into smallest factual statements that I know I'll be able to extrapolate some information from. (To be exact, I ctrl+c, ctrl+v snippets of most important sentences or write down what exactly I want to remember in few words, then after reading come back and expand that into Q&A card.) In my particular case I've been using it mostly for math/physics and history studies, so actual example would be reading one book on subjects, researching 20-30 wiki articles based around it and boiling it down to hundred, maybe few hundreds of most important facts. But I feel it can work with less factually "dense" material and for following academical discourse/debates.

At first I thought it might not seem well-suited to kind of academical pursuit where you're not simply trying to memorize some factual statements (because of answer-response nature of SR software), but remember, it's just a tool and it all lies in ability to formulate Q-A cards well. For example, if you want to be able to retrace discussion on concept of, say, feudalism you can try to boil it down to questions like "what is Marc Bloch's definition of feudalism?", "what separates Bloch's views on feudalism from his contemporaries?", "where and when did Bloch formulate his concept of feudalism?", "which historian first promoted Marxist reading of feudalism?" etc. etc. I think it's self-evident how those kind of short Q&A cards can let you get back to subject in year or two and have at least amount of fluidity where at very least it serves as a pointer on where to look for answers, can recall a name of important papers on your subject or ensures that next time you see a particular name you don't go "ungh, who is she?".
I can attest that, when done right, at least 95% of what you put into cards will stay with you for >5 years, which is about how long I've been doing it. Actual work is being wise in picking the right kind of material for cards as you're reading and taking notes.

(I'm rambling a bit here because I'm really bad at formulating concise thoughts in English, but feel free to memail me if it sounds useful and you need some more explanations on the method.)
posted by desultory_banyan at 10:31 AM on July 14, 2013

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