Alistair Chalmers, Assistant Pastor of Bruntsfield Evangelical Church Edinburgh, is one of our regular book reviewers, and has a blog focused on reading and reviewing Christian books. Here he gives his top tips for remembering all we read.
One of the questions that I get asked quite a lot is ‘how do you remember the stuff that you read due to the volume of books you get through?’ That is a great question! I have a terrible memory for information, I can hear or read something and have no recollection of it moments later. But for the past number of years reading a lot of books has helped me develop some practices which help me remember important concepts, themes or arguments of books.
Because people have asked me about this a number of times, I thought that I would write a short post on the techniques that I use to cement good and helpful information in my mind and memory. Here are just a few things that I do…
1. Keep a scoring system
I have a library app, Libib, in which I keep a digital record of the books in my library. One of the benefits of this is that when I hear about a book, or want to see if I already have a book but I’m not at the office where the majority of my books are kept, I can open the app and search my library. The app if very user friendly, to add a book all I need to do is scan the barcode on the back or type in the ISBN and the app adds all of the books information into my phone.
Another feature of this app, which helps to remember information, is that you can rate and review a book on it. You can also do this on goodreads, an online platform for readers and authors. Once you read a book you can give it a star rating which will help you remember if you found it helpful or not. But it also gives you the option of commenting on the contents of the book, which you can keep privately or make public. Having a scoring system is helpful because it means that you can keep track of what you’ve read, but it also means that you can have all of this information on the go. This leads to the second technique…
2. Write a short summary of each chapter and/or book
When I first started reading so much I had a note open on my iPhone that was dedicated to the book that I was reading at that time. I began by summarising the teaching of each chapter and adding in good quotes that I wanted to return to. I did a short paragraph for each chapter of the book and then concluded the note with a summary of all the contents and general comments with a rating (this was before I started using Libib and goodreads). Once I had finished the book and written the note I kept it in my emails so that if someone asked about the book I could have a short summary on hand to inform the conversation. Personally, I don’t use this technique anymore, but instead use myblog in a similar way, to help me remember and summaries the contents and message of a book.
3. Use a pencil as you read
Just before starting my blog, over a year ago, I realised that I wasn’t quite managing to remember the location of good quotes or key themes of a book because I was so focused on keeping the book in pristine condition. Whilst I still don’t like ‘marking a book to shreds’ I do always read with a pencil which helps me engage more with the book. Here are the symbols that I use as I read a book to help my memory as I flick through the pages…
? – A question mark can mean that the author is making an interesting point that I would like to research some more, but it could also mean that the explanation is not logical and doesn’t make sense. Generally I would write a word or two in the margins of the book to clarify why I have put the questions mark there. If I’m reading a book that I disagree with then I will write Scripture references that disagree with the author’s position or other comments that are relevant to the topic.
Underline – When reading a book there will inevitably be parts of it that you found helpful and specific parts that you would like to remember. I draw attention to these by underlining the quote. If the quote is very good I also add a * in the margin or the page. If the quote is very very good and I want to use it (in conversations, blog, or sermon) then then I underline, use a * and dog ear the page. This helps your eyes be drawn to the quote as you flick through the pages.
Write in the margin – Hopefully you will be reading books that you agree with, but also some material that is outside of your ‘tribe’ and books that you wouldn’t automatically be drawn to. Writing in the margins really helps to cement information into your memory because you’re thinking about and wrestling with the material. I try to reference Bible verses which are in support or disagreement with the author, that way I’m keeping my head in Scripture and letting God speak about the truth of a claim.
Those are just a few of the techniques that I have used over the years to help me remember things that I have read.
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You can read more about Alistair Chalmers on his Blog.