Gospel Relevance

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How to Remember What You Read

I love to read books. But few things discourage me more than not remembering what I read. I don’t want to give 6, 8, 10 hours of my life towards a book only to not remember any of it when I’m done. This is frustrating. But I know I’m not alone. Because of the fall, our memories are not as sharp as they could be. That’s why some sort of system is essential for retention.

How to remember what you read

I will say, though, by God’s grace, I have a pretty strong recall. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I’ve been told by others on multiple occasions that I have a good memory. And yet, even with having a strong memory, I still forget parts of things I read. I can’t passively read books and retain everything.

Below I share my system on how to remember what you read. I don’t read fiction so I have in mind non-fiction reading. While I don’t exactly do this for every book, here’s a few things I try to do to help me remember what I read:

How To Remember What You Read

I pray. Before I read my Bible or some other book, I pray. I ask for supernatural assistance. I pray that the Lord will bring illumination to my mind. I pray that I will be able to remember what I read and store it into my long-term memory. I pray that what I read will make me more like Christ. Good reading requires divine help.

Don’t think these prayers are long and winded. They’re not. Just 15-20 seconds or so. Sometimes I’ll forget to do this, but I try not to. I don’t pray the same way for every book I read, but I find that asking God for help is a key component to remembering what I read.

I read actively, not passively. I have a highlighter and pen in hand. I highlight what sticks out to me. After reading something particularly inspiring, I’ll stop, close my eyes, and repeat what just inspired me. I’m trying to beat this information into my head and glue it to my memory. This process is surprisingly quite helpful.

I will also try to take notes, but I’ve noticed over the years that this takes a lot of patience and can be exasperating. Not every book is worth this sort of effort. Instead of taking notes after each chapter or on a separate sheet of paper, I’ll write what sticks out to me on the inside of the front cover. That way, when I want to go back and re-read some of my important notes, I don’t have to flip through all of the pages; I just have to flip through the first page.

I re-read my notes. After completing the book, I will sometimes go back and quickly re-read everything I’ve highlighted. Often, though, I just re-read the notes I write on the inside cover. Highlighting, note-taking, and re-reading quick notes on the inside front cover are an important aspect of remembering what I read.

Whenever I’m in my office at home where I keep my books, I will sporadically just pick up a random book and re-read my notes. Books are like good friends, always there when you need them. Re-reading my notes from a book I’ve read is like picking up a conversation I had with an old friend back in the day. It brings fresh joy, remembrance, and inspiration.

I read with others. A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to read a book on preaching with him. The idea intrigued me for many reasons, but one is because I know I’ll retain more when I read in community as opposed to reading in isolation. It is unrealistic to think I can do this with every book, but occasionally reading a book with friends will help remembrance.

This is my system for now. It’s not flashy or elaborate or perfect, but it seems to work for me.

No matter what system you come up with, you’re going to have trouble remembering what you read. Nobody has a perfect mind. But just because it can be hard remembering what you read doesn’t mean you should give up on reading books.

Why not?

Tim Challies helps us here when he says: “I’ve learned to trust that a book does something to me in the reading, not just in the remembrance. I find this comforting since I so often find I don’t remember a whole lot about a book after reading it. Sometimes I don’t even remember reading it at all! Still, I trust it has benefited me in some way. Sermons are like that too, I think—they do something in us at the moment, even if we can’t exactly quantify it later on.”

Come up with a process for remembering what you read. Because of God’s common grace, we have access to a wealth of knowledge, and we should take every opportunity to take advantage of this. You don’t even have to read the entire book to say you’ve read it. Sometimes just one page of a book can change your life. The key is to try to remember that one page.

You may also like: 

-35 Book Reading Tips for Readers

-8 Quick Tips to Help You Read More Books

-10 Christian Books to Look Out for in 2018

About David Qaoud

David Qaoud (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is associate pastor of Bethesda Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and founder of gospelrelevance.com. His work has appeared on The Gospel Coalition, For the Church, and Banner of Truth. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and son. Learn more>