2021-03-20 note

Active reading

The outcome of reading with a pen in the hand is not possible to anticipate … the idea is not to copy, but to have a meaningful dialogue with the texts we read.”
— Sönke Ahrens (2017, 76)

Reading is a hard habit to maintain as an adult. Available time shrinks, memory gets worse, and there is no inherent motivation like passing or failing a class. Self-directed learning through independent reading is the most important skill I learned in school, so how can I rebuild this habit as an adult?

The curse of memory

A sad part of getting older has been losing my voracious appetite for fiction. As a kid I could blow through a book a week, but my retention of what I was reading was pretty low. I kept an impression of the overall vibe of the book and its author, but specific details would fade quickly after setting it down.

These days when I have the chance to read I spend my time on long non-fiction books to stop my brain from turning into a hard sponge. I enjoy biographies of artists, histories about society’s relation to technology, and how-to texts about creative problem solving. Fiction is still in the rotation, but mostly short breezy books and comics.

Forgetting has not been a huge problem in my life of reading. I am usually content with the hazy memory and vague sense of satisfaction that comes from finishing a book. But in lockdown I noticed my relationship to reading and text changing. I was having trouble remembering details from anything I read, especially non-fiction.

Reading to learn

Active reading is an approach emphasizing personal learning and extraction of ideas from a text instead of passive absorption. Books I take months to read should feed into a database of personal knowledge that I can reference and build on.

When I’m reading non-fiction, I try to highlight and note things that stand out to me. When I finish a chapter, I’ll go back through my notes and highlights to see what is worth saving. By the time I’m done with a book I’ve got a best of” note that has ideas, quotes from the book, and my own annotated thoughts.

These notes make it easy for me to remember or reference not only the information in the book, but also context around why it was important to me. From there, I can launch off into my own writing and pull in specific ideas from books I have read. This creates a rewarding cycle of reading and writing that has kept me motivated to work through longer works of non-fiction.

Ahrens, Sönke. 2017. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.