How do I become a more mindful reader
January 17, 2019 5:12 PM   Subscribe

I have a reading challenge for 2019, with a lot of amazing titles and a renewed interest in visiting my local library. I'm close to finishing my third book of the year, but I keep finding myself wishing that I retained more than just nebulous good/bad feelings and a few memorable lines. How do I become the type of person who can formulate long, thorough reviews? What prompts/nudges can I build into my reading to help me remember more of a book's contents?

I used to be an absolutely voracious reader in my childhood/teens, and am trying to get back to that sense of literary wonder. The books I'm reading now are also titles I'm very excited about, so this isn't a matter of getting bored half-way through and wanting to finish out of a sense of duty or obligation.

I just realized that I'm completely unable to give someone else a good summary of a title I finished, or clearly articulate what parts I liked or disliked, what really resonated, what I learned (about the world, or about writing, or myself). I guess I'd like to feel like an intelligent reader at this stage of my life, more than crunching through a certain number of books and calling it an achievement.

I figure always having a notepad with me might be a good start. (Maybe getting a lovely notebook solely for this purpose!)

Are there any other suggestions for how I can improve my reading experience? I feel like this is something I used to be quite good at in school, but it's been a while!
posted by erratic meatsack to Education (14 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I wrote online reviews of most of what I read for two-three years and I remember those books better than anything I haven't taken an exam on. Also, the first reviews were a few dumb sentences, the last ones were able to balance evidence from sets of books I'd read on related topics. Yeah, always a notebook while you're reading, always a pencil, keep track of work and page number as you have ideas. Just having a commonplace book of good quotes was great.

(I quit when I moved to LibraryThing but realized too late that their backend didn't really support the inter-references I was doing. I should get back into it.)
posted by clew at 5:23 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yep, underlining and notes. And re-reading!
posted by praemunire at 5:32 PM on January 17, 2019

Best answer: So there’s this book database a lot of libraries use called Novelist, and one of their strengths is their many faceted search engine. Besides stuff like basic genre, they also catagorize books based on what they call “appeal factors”. This includes stuff like pace, tone, and character type. You can read more about their use of appeal factors on their site here :

Anyway, when you’re finished with a book, take some time to think about the appeal factors. Where the characters quirky and the plot leisurely? Or is the tone bleak with a gritty writing style? Maybe you can even make a little form with their categories in it in your notebook. I find that once you start categorizing books, it really helps be more aware of the text as you’re reading it. I also tend to think about who would like a book. Does it have unexpected appeal to someone who might be turned off by the cover? Why? I write those things down too.

Anyway, that’s what helps me!
posted by itsamermaid at 5:45 PM on January 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

I did what clew did (still am, on goodreads) and for just the reason you give: a desire to get back to that state of literary wonder and to retain a deeper impression of my reading. I carried a notebook to jot things down in for a while, but I found the practice of writing a review right after I finished the book (well... "a review." More often a reply, or an impression, or a mini-essay on a topic that the book brought up in me.) to really be the thing that changed my reading habits for good. Knowing that I wanted to be able to write something pithy and thoughtful after was the spur that made me a better reader.
posted by minervous at 5:47 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Re-reading is pretty good. Also, if you’re using an e-reader, they typically have functionality to let you highlight, add bookmarks and notes as you like.

Half Price Books has lovely notebooks for low prices that might be a nice companion to your reading ventures. Maybe write your review as you read the book, and then go back and refine your draft once you’ve completed it. That way, you can capture not only what you just read, but the thoughts you had at the time you read it, and whether your expectations at that point met up with what you thought after finishing.

Also, keep in mind that some books are really great, but don’t lend themselves well to summaries. Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series is amazing, but good luck trying to describe what it’s about without basically writing a Cliff Notes edition. If you love a book that has a ton of disparate elements which make no sense outside the context of the plot, just describe some parts that stood out. Your enthusiasm about the quality of the story will still come through, even if you feel Iike you can’t do justice to it in your review, and people will respond to that just as much as to your description.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:53 PM on January 17, 2019

After I finish a book, I look to see whether I've turned down any corners (I know, I know, they are very tiny corners!), and then I pick out the sentence(s) I liked, and if I'm still moved, I write them down in a small commonplace book. I could see adding a few questions ("a good summary of a title I finished, or clearly articulate what parts I liked or disliked, what really resonated, what I learned (about the world, or about writing, or myself)" to what I've written down...but really, my book acts as a resource for when I'm writing something else, and want to refer back to a particular line. Maybe something like that would work for you?
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:16 PM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Cannonball Reads is a book-reading "marathon" that has you write a review for every book you finish, while fundraising for the ACS. Practice makes perfect, and you'll be in the company of others doing the same.

I see MonkeyToes mentioned a commonplace book, which, seconded!! It is one of the joys of reading as an adult for me! Keeping an eye out for that next great nugget is wonderful, and the ritual of writing it out by hand helps me reflect on the ideas/work more after reading.
posted by snerson at 7:03 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Talk out loud while reading. "Aww.... Rachel. You poor twit." Argue with the book. "No, you stupid dummy!" Pause every now and again and stare at the book while thinking about what you just read. Inform the book about you conclusions. "He shoulda climbed the watertower to shoot."

When the book is incomplete take a few moments to research something pertaining to the book so you get additional input. For example if you are reading a book set in Thailand, look at some videos or photos taken in ordinary places in Thailand. Then when you go back to reading your visual imagery as you read along will be stronger.

Select worse books, one with no redeeming literary merit that make you chortle with glee, or whimper and rock yourself back and forth during the bad bits because they are emotionally manipulative, self-indulgent, shmoopy twaddle.

Select better books, ones that make it hard for you to go to sleep after reading them, like "Baba Yar," books that are about real things that matter.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:17 PM on January 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Do you follow the Tournament of Books?

In short, if you don't, it's a yearly tongue in cheek competition, wherein a judge reads two books and picks a "winner" to advance through a march-madness style bracket to arrive at a champion.

The reason that I mention it is that the essays written by the judges are more than just book reviews, or synopses...they are short, but they lay out the plot, include a couple of choice passages, and then have a dig at trying to prove that one is better than the other. They require a bit of a deeper dive into each book to pull of an entertaining essay. past years' entries are archived on the site to give you an idea.

Maybe go into the next book you are reading with the idea that you really want to convince someone how great, or terrible, or mediocre the book is and be prepared to prove it. I've done this and it really ups my note taking/bookmarking game as i'm reading.

I will also add a shameless plug for the Fanfare ToB book club, which still has room for folks to choose a book or two from the shortlist to post about. might make good practice.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:48 PM on January 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

There is a classic book on this topic called How To Read A Book. The 1972 edition includes material on approaching fiction. Reading the summary, it may sound too stuffy and academic for what you want, although the writing is clearer than you might expect. It also might be exactly what you're looking for?
posted by rollick at 2:53 AM on January 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

If I try to write a review after I finished a book, even a day later, I find myself less passionate, less interested, and less thorough. I have a good memory for the events of books, but when I'm reading them I *feel* them very strongly, and that feeling usually fades fast. So I write reviews when I'm 90% done with the book. At that point I'm still all caught up in my thoughts and feelings about it, and the effort of articulating it really cements that.

Occasionally there has been an ending that required me to go back and amend my review (we're talking Goodreads or my personal blog, not any kind of publication), but that's fine, because my original thoughts are there, and then I can have another discussion about the ending. I have to do it while it's fresh, though--a review I write two days later tends to be dry and generic.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:09 AM on January 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I marked a few best answers but honestly every suggestion you guys had is a gem. My main takeaway is to slow down and take more breaks to reflect on what I've just read, whether it's an entire chapter or a few paragraphs. I already carry my books everywhere so an additional notepad to jot down thoughts (and maybe reorganize them later) shouldn't be a burden!
posted by erratic meatsack at 11:23 AM on January 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Some other questions I found myself more interested in: what is this book assuming without saying so? What is it declaring? What are they leaving out? How are they doing it, and what kind of reader would `get' each signal?

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland does this very entertainingly for a genre of fiction, but it was a history of The Footnote that pointed it up. The author claims that schools of historians insult each other by leaving out references from a `default' set that varies with each subject and you'd only know if you were already in a school. No-one else knows what's missing.
posted by clew at 10:53 AM on January 20, 2019

Are you interested in joining a book club? My Skype friend-and-family book club has helped me both rekindle my joy of reading and also articulate my thoughts about a book in a supportive atmosphere. I think it is easier to have clear opinions and good ideas in conversation rather than as a monologue in general!
posted by athirstforsalt at 9:05 AM on January 25, 2019

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