How to Remember What You Read

April 7, 2012


by Paul R. Martin

Many years ago, a friend named Don complained to me that in spite of reading a lot, he couldn't remember much of what he had read. He could remember the books, and he could remember that they had been interesting or informative, but he couldn't remember the contents of the book. In desperation, he found himself going back and re-reading books that he knew he had liked.

His remarks motivated me to work on the problem during the intervening years and I gradually developed a solution. As of this writing, I have a system of remembering what I have read that works exceedingly well for me. Recently another good friend suggested that I explain my method and make it available for a wider audience so that they may have the benefits just as I do. Hence, this essay.

Rather than describe my method straightaway, I'll take you through some of the history of its development. By going through the history, I can point out the advantages and disadvantages of both my partially developed method and those of other alternatives. It will put the peculiar features and enhancements to the method in a context that will help you understand why I do it the way I do.

So let's start at the beginning. When I was in college, I used a technique that is very common: I simply underlined important passages in the book and I jotted comments in the margins. The problem with this method, of course, is that to find those passages and comments later you have to pick up the book and thumb through it looking for the marks.

To help solve this problem, some people, I noticed, would highlight the passages with a yellow marker. That way they were easier to spot as you thumb through. But I never did that. Instead I sometimes used a red pen or pencil trying to achieve the same effect.

That was about as good as my method was until Don told me about his dismay. That conversation got me to thinking about my method. It occurred to me that you could improve the method and avoid the thumbing through the book if you made all your notes in one place, say on the inside cover of the book. All that would require would be to write the page number down along with the comment, or in the case of something underlined, simply the page number. To distinguish between the two, for the underlined passages, I wrote down the page number and the symbol [q]. That symbol meant to me that there was an interesting quote on the cited page.

It became obvious to me later, to my embarrassment, that it was inefficient to take the time to write the symbol [q] each time so I improved the method by writing instead just a quotation mark.

At some point, I also changed from underlining to simply enclosing the passage in quote marks. I also drew a vertical mark in the margin to make the quote marks easier to find. That saved time and it defaced the book less. I think I switched to this method after reading a used book that someone else had underlined. I found it annoying to be distracted trying to figure out why the previous reader had underlined what he did.

The method worked well for many years. I only had to remember which books were interesting and a vague recollection of which books to look at to find specific information. Then by consulting my notes on the inside cover I could go directly to the correct page.

Then one day, a third friend, named Bob, lent me a book and asked me to read it so we could discuss it later. I didn't want to deface his book, so I folded a sheet of paper, stuck it in behind the front cover, and recorded my usual notes on that piece of paper. Instead of marking the passages within the book, I actually counted the lines to the quoted passage and recorded the line number along with the page numbers. I only ever did this for that one book.

When I finished reading the book, and was ready for our discussion, it occurred to me that it would help get our discussion rolling if I shared my notes and comments with Bob ahead of time. So I took that sheet of paper, sat down with my word processor, and typed it up.

I am a fairly good touch typist, which is of a great help, but not absolutely necessary, if you choose to use my method. So in almost no time, with minimal effort, I had a transcription that I not only could hand to Bob, but I emailed it to him in advance as soon as it was finished.

That experience surprised me in several ways almost immediately. First I was surprised at how easy it had been to type up the notes. That is because they were already organized in one place and I transcribed them simply in a session of heads-down typing.

Secondly I was surprised at how useful it was to have those notes in a machine-readable form. Not only could I print off copies for use in our discussion, but as I said, I could email them in advance. Better yet, I could consult the notes from my computer without having to find and lay my hands on the book itself. And, even better than that, the machine readable notes could now be searched for keywords, or any other text. I could see how this could go a long way toward solving the problem of my dismayed friend Don.

Almost immediately I began a program of systematically going through all the books in my library and transcribing my notes into a computer file. I consolidated them into a file I call Booknotes. I just checked and that file is now up to page 154. It is still growing. I systematically add to the collection of notes either as I am reading new books, or certainly as soon as I finish each book.

Not long after I had established my Booknotes file, it occurred to me that since I had already done the work of getting my notes in machine readable form, it would not take much more work to post them on my website. That way they would be available to anyone in the world and I could refer people to them if it would help me communicate with them. You can find the notes in their current state at Booknotes.

The basic idea of my method is to require the minimal time, effort, and interruption in order to capture the notes while reading a book, and to make the transcription of the notes as easy and efficient as possible.

In the time since I began posting the notes on my website, I have refined parts of the process to make it work even better. Following is the history of some of those refinements.

Typically, as soon as I start reading a book, if it is a hardback, I remove and cut up the dust jacket. This is a peculiarity of mine that has nothing to do with my note-taking method, but since I brought it up, I'll explain.

Dust jackets have always annoyed me when I am reading a book with one still on. They cause the book to slip out of my hands, they get in the way, and they serve no purpose that I can see except one. It seems silly to expect a flimsy paper dust jacket to protect the robust binding of a hardcover book. And, if they are to protect against dust, as the name implies, dust can hardly accumulate on the covers. Covers are not only usually vertical in the shelves but they are protected by the adjacent books on the shelf. The dust accumulates on the top of the book, on the exposed ream of pages, which are not only hard to clean, but totally unprotected by the "dust jacket".

No, dust jackets have only one purpose: they provide free advertising for the book's publisher. When you carry around a book with a dust jacket on it, the flashy cover attracts the attention of passersby and thus you become an unwitting servant of the publisher in promoting the book. I don't like being used that way.

So I look at the dust jacket to see if there is anything on it that I want to preserve. Usually there is. It might be a photo of the author, some interesting biographical or other information that I want to keep. I cut the dust jacket up to remove each of these pieces I want to preserve and I glue the pieces into the book somewhere: Usually on the inside of the front or back covers.

With the dust jacket removed and the useful parts pasted inside, I examine the book to see what space is available for me to record my notes. Sometimes I have used up some of the good space with my pastings, other times there are extra fly leaves available at the front or the back. Sometimes the title page has a lot of useful white space on it. It varies. But if the inside front cover is available, I use that. Otherwise I choose a flyleaf at the end of the book, or another page, and I get an extra bookmarker and place it there so I can easily flip to my notes.

Then I begin reading the book and following my process. When I encounter an interesting passage I want to remember, I decide whether I want to simply record some direct quote from the book, or whether I want to make a comment on a certain passage, or both.

If I want to record a verbatim quote, I write a pair of quote marks around the passage in the book. Then I draw a vertical pencil line in the outside margin from the line with the first quote mark down to the line with the second quote mark. If the quote happens to span more than one page, I draw an arrow on the bottom of my vertical line, and then continue the line on the subsequent page on the other margin.

That is, if the quote started on a left hand page, the line would start on the left margin, since that is the outside margin. Then, the continuation would be on the inside margin of the next, or right hand, page. Similarly if the line started on the right margin of a right hand page, its continuation on the next page would be on the inside margin at the right side of the page.

This might seem a little anal, but it is what I do. By continuing the vertical line on the other margin so that it is on an inside margin rather than an outside margin, all of the cited page numbers refer to vertical lines on the outside margins. Believe it or not, that helps later on when I transcribe the notes.

If I don't want to record a direct quote from the book but I want to make a comment of my own, then I draw the vertical line(s) and make no further marks in the book.

That's usually the extent of the marking, or defacing, that I do in the pages of the book. However, sometimes I will record some special notes, but usually not. I do, however, add another pair of quotes inside the original pair and I write an ellipsis behind the first of these, in the case I want to skip some of the material in the quote. In fact, I might do that several times within a single big quote. This, too, helps speed up transcription when the time comes.

With all the mark-up done, I flip the book to where I am recording notes. I usually insert a bookmarker in the page I am reading to make it easier to get back to where I was after the note is made.

When the book is open to the inside front cover, or wherever I am writing my notes, I write the page number in a continuing column of numbers down the left side of the note page.

Then, to the right of the page number I write a quote mark if I want to quote a passage from the book. If not, then I write my comment to the right of the page number. If I want to do both, I write a quote mark followed by my comment.

Depending on the book, I may want to do more or less commenting. Typically, I do quite a bit of quoting only, with only occasional comments of my own. But also typically, when I do make a comment, I can get quite wordy. To save the precious white space on the page I am taking notes on, when I begin to write a comment to the right of a page number, I will slant the text sharply up and to the right so that it hugs the text of previous comments I made. Once the text has run all the way across the page, I level off the next lines so that the page begins filling with no wasted space. That way, my vertical list of page numbers ends up fairly compact and single-spaced down the page. Believe it or not, this also helps noticeably when I get around to the transcription.

When the page number, the quote marks, and the comments are all written, I flip the book back and resume reading. The bookmarker makes this quick and easy.

I continue in this way either until I finish reading the book, or give up on it. Either way, or maybe at stages before I have even finished reading, I will sit down at my word processor and transcribe my notes. Here's how I do that.

First, I lay the book next to my word processor keyboard and open it to my notes. Then I turn Numlock on on my keyboard. I position my hands with my right hand over the numeric keypad and one of my left fingers over the Enter key. With my right hand, I type in the first page number in my list. With my left hand finger, I hit the Enter key. Then, with my right hand, I type in the next page number in my list. With my left hand finger, hit the Enter key again and continue the process.

I get into a rhythm and keep going, heads down, until I have recorded the entire list of page numbers. I stop either at the end of notes, end of page, or early onset of carpal tunnel syndrome. It goes fast because all the numbers are in a single-spaced column and you don't have to move anything but a few fingers and your eyes.

Next, I move the cursor back up to the end of the first page number, position a left hand finger over the tab key, and a right hand finger over the down arrow key. Then, even faster than before, I alternately strike with those left and right hand fingers. (This is actually fun and surprisingly fast.)

Then I move the cursor back up to the first of those tab positions and get my notes where I can see them. I position a left hand finger over the '"' (quote) key with a second finger holding down the shift key. Then I position a right hand finger over the down arrow key. I carefully watch my list and work down one line at a time.

If there is a quote mark there on the line, I strike the quote key If the quote mark is followed by a comment, I strike the quote key a second time. Then I strike the down arrow key to move down the list.

In this pass, I skip the comments and type in only a quote mark, two quote marks, or nothing. This is pretty fast too, but you have to pay pretty careful attention to your note list to make sure you get it right and avoid wasting time later.

When I reach the bottom of my list, I position my cursor back up to the first line on my screen that doesn't have a quote mark or that has two quote marks. That means I made a comment for that page. I type in the comment and then proceed to find the next line with zero or two quote marks and repeat the process until I reach the bottom again.

When I reach the bottom, everything I wrote on my note page has now been transcribed into my file. Now I need to transcribe the quotes from the book itself. This is a little clumsier because I have to turn pages in the book. But at least I can work from my computer screen and not have to refer to my note page any more.

I start out by getting a three-hole punch, or other rather heavy object, to use as a paperweight. I find the top quote mark on my screen and open the book to the page in front of the mark. I place the paperweight on the book to hold it flat and yet not obscure the passage I need to see and record. The vertical marks make this easy.

Quite often there will be several vertical marks on one page meaning that the same page number appears multiple times on my list. It is easy to notice which one to use by looking at the screen. My method of using the outside margins for the initial vertical lines, and the inside margins for continuations across pages, helps in this process. The number of vertical lines in the outside margins should always match the number of page numbers in the list for that page. So it's easy to figure out which vertical line I am working with. As soon as I figure it out, the paperweight is positioned at the correct vertical line.

Next I position the cursor to the right of the quote mark. If there are two quote marks together, I position the cursor between them. In this case, there should be a comment to the right that is already keyed in.

Then in another bout of heads-down keying, I key in the material from the book. At the end of the passage, I key in the final quote mark, unless it is already there because of a comment of mine following it.

Then, looking at the screen, I find the next quote mark down the list. I open the book to the page number in front of it and repeat the process until I finish.

That's it. Simple, wasn't it? It sounds a lot more complicated than it is, but like most routine tasks, they become a lot more efficient when an efficient procedure is worked out and the procedure has become second nature with practice. This procedure has evolved to be very efficient for me, and if you follow it and practice it, I think it can work for you also.

If it would help you to see some actual examples, I have scanned one of my note pages so you can see what I am talking about, and you can also see the final result in my Booknotes.

Good luck, and thank you for reading this essay.

Please send me an email with your comments.

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