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picture-of-a-stack-of-books-with-some-harry-potter-glassesLast week, I posted a video to my Facebook page in which I gave some tips for reading faster, better, and wider. Also last week, Hubworthy released book recommendations from people associated with The Gospel Coalition. (My list of “essential reading” is here.)

With so many good books to read, it’s natural to want to read better and wider. Here is my response to a few questions that were sent to me on Facebook, prompted by the video.

Do you have any recommendations on increasing retention level when reading?

Most good books are good precisely because there is one main thought you walk away with. If you are unable to summarize a book in a couple sentences, or easily assess the contribution it makes to the topic it covers, either you are a muddled reader or the book came from a muddled thinker.

If you were to pull a book off my shelf at home and ask me about it, I’d probably be able to tell you the author’s main point, his way of making that point, and how that point coincides or contradicts others in the same field. Then, I’d either recommend it as worthy of your time or point you to another resource.

Speaking of recommendations, describing a book as “helpful” is better when there is an “if” attached at the end. Such as:

  • This book is helpful if you are looking for a popular level treatment of this topic (as opposed to reading a peer-reviewed academic work of research).
  • This book is helpful if you want to better understand the worldview of a sentimental atheist (as opposed to reading a book of apologetics against atheism.)

Much of what we determine “helpful” or “unhelpful” depends on what we are going to the book for.

Do you try and “get everything” the author is saying, or just get something – maybe one main thought you walk away from book with?

It’s not possible to retain everything an author says, although multiple readings can aid you in retaining the book’s main thrust. Your goal is to get the author’s main point, and then to look for additional points that make you think.

The picture below is from Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart.

Community of Memory

As you can see, I’ve underlined a lot of this section on “communities of memory.” This idea is not the main point of the book; nevertheless, it’s an important concept that comes up throughout. (I used some elements of this idea in a blog post last week.) Sometimes, your takeaway from a book is not the main point but an important concept.

What’s your best retention technique when reading?

I read the introduction and conclusion closely, and then read the introductions and conclusions of the chapters before reading the rest of the chapter. This helps me map out the book or chapter in my mind. I already know what the author wants to say, and the points he or she hopes to have made. Then, I read the rest of the chapter, and I see if the author was able to actually get me where he or she promised. Does this argument make sense? Does the conclusion follow? Does the author keep me interested?

Another way to boost retention is to read so much in a given field that you can quickly identify the original contribution of the author. If you’ve already read a lot on the subject, you don’t need to read everything the author says (otherwise, you’re reading the same insights, just from different writers). Instead, you need to discover what the author is adding to the conversation.

Do you have a note taking system?

As you can see from this picture below (a page from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue), my primary way of taking notes in order to improve retention is by underlining (in pencil).

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Underlining helps me follow the scaffolding of the author’s argument. Whenever the author says ”First…,” I underline that sentence. Then I find the next place the argument moves forward (“Secondly…” or “Third…” and so forth). Sometimes I write the number of points in the margin, which makes it easy to return to the book and see the flow of the author’s argumentation.

Margins are great for notes. I don’t take a lot of them, but sometimes I will jot down an idea that I want to think more deeply about. (You can see that from the note below on the difference between knowledge and wisdom in Jonathan Grant’s Divine Sex.)

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I’ll also put exclamation points in the margin because the point struck me (in a good way) or it alerts me to something I disagree with.

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Underlining does two things for me. It slows me down in my reading and makes me more conscious of where the author is going. It keeps me from skimming.

Underlining also helps Future Trevin out. When Future Trevin pulls that book off the shelf, I want him to be able to familiarize himself with the main ideas quickly. If Future Trevin reads whatever it is I’ve underlined, all he will need is 5 minutes or so to read through a chapter and retain the essence of it.

On my Kindle, I highlight quotes, and those quotes become available at my Kindle page on Amazon. It is nice to open that page and see everything I underlined from a particular book. I can refamiliarize myself with a title just by skimming through whatever I highlighted.

Any ideas on how to retell what we have read? It’s impossible to re-preach everything we read, but is it important to retell it in some way? How do you retell what you read (ministry/preaching)?

Retelling matters for retention. If you’re going to read an important book, it’s good to find a friend or two who has read the book, someone you can discuss it with. You will retain more of the book if you talk about it, play around with the concepts, agree and disagree out loud with someone about it.

Reading does impact our preaching, but this impact is due more to how reading shapes us as preachers rather than how it shapes our sermons.

Thank you to my Facebook followers for the good questions on reading. Everyone has different ways of reading well. I hope my suggestions may be of some help.


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7 thoughts on “Tips on Reading Better While Retaining More”

  1. Stephen says:

    Challies talks about exporting his kindle highlights to an evernote document, and that accessibility is really for me the greatest benefit of reading digitally. I’m almost at the point where I want to read a good book first on paper and then go through it immediately afterward on Kindle to record all the highlights and notes I took.

  2. Good stuff!

    I underline and use the margins a lot too. However, I use my bookmark as a rule to keep the lines beneath the text straight. I usually also use single or double lines down the margin to highlight important (single) or especially important (double) passages (sometimes just having a line down the side of the first few lines, followed by an arrow for a particularly long passage), rather than underlining each individual line.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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