Active Reading–A New Adventure


Have you ever stumbled across a treasure? I mean something that gets you really excited? Maybe you saw a twenty-dollar bill laying on the ground, just like a friend of mine. Or perhaps you found that treasured necklace you thought had been lost forever. Whatever it was, you probably felt a burst of euphoric energy that kept you smiling from time to time throughout your day.

I had a similar experience. As part of my investigation into illiteracy in Colorado, I’ve had to review my own reading habits, which, to be honest, aren’t impressive at all. I am a word-by-word reader, and very slow. Added to that, I no longer remember most of what I read, and quoting from a favorite book (other than Dr. Seuss of course) seems impossible.

Reading And Notes

Capture what you read.

Then, the other day, I stumbled across my daughter’s old copy of The Little, Brown Handbook by H.Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron. Treasure found! My daughter used this book in high school, and left it behind when I showed enthusiasm for it so long ago. Since then, I’ve dipped into its 836 pages when I’ve had a specific grammar or punctuation question, but little else.

Last week I began to read the Introduction thinking that if I dove into a few pages a day, I could finish the obligation in, say, a year. But a funny thing happened. The intro referred me to thoughts on writing while reading–taking notes.  So I flipped to pages 7-8 and pages 37-38 for ideas on how to take notes.  From there I skipped to a book called “The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists”by Andrew McAleer, with advice from several published authors on a variety of subjects. I took my new-found note taking skills out for a test drive.

Since, I’ve flipped back and forth, not truly reading from page one to the end, yet getting more out of the experience than ever before. I have ideas for promoting my books mixing with ways to read better, more critically (which means, according to the Little Brown Handbook, “skeptical,””exacting,””creative”), and deeply. Speed reading doesn’t seem so important when reading to have stronger critical skills. Words are becoming a joy again. In short I love it, mixing reading with writing at the same time.

You’re probably wondering where I was throughout college.  Kids there take notes while reading all the time. I remember doing so too. The thing was, I’d last been taught how to take notes while reading in grammar school, so note-taking in college was a chore instead of a helpful tool. And for me, any chore worth naming is one worth avoiding, procrastinating about or otherwise neglecting to do.

Forgive me if this post on taking notes while reading seems too elemental for you. I’m just very excited about it. I have started a reading journal, and may transfer some of the notes I take into a Word document at some point, but for now, I love the physical aspect of taking notes.

So, how does this note taking method work?  I simply draw a line down the middle of a page. On the left, I can paraphrase what the author says, or quote directly. On the right side I put down anything that comes to mind. Questions, skepticism, personal experiences that relate, or even other conclusions. It’s that simple.  In the past I have tried to use the outline method of note taking, getting halfway through only to start scribbling in margins and at angles because I missed a direct connection. I’ve also used mind-mapping, but have struggled to find enough room to write whole paragraphs of thought. I like the two columns because there is space for “the experts,” and there is a lot of room for me. I ignore the lines on the right side and just draw arrows to the thoughts that I’m reflecting upon.

Will this method of learning work forever? Maybe, maybe not. I continue to try to outline when I can. And mind-mapping has its place. But taking notes while I read? I like this two column way well.

Another thing. I underline a lot in my books.  Just never thought to write a lot of notes in the margins of good books. Now, I know I can jot a few words to question and explore a work like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 without having to think of myself as a criminal of book publishing.  I can take those notes and underlines and put them into my reading journal to put next to other quotes and question how they compare, which I like better, which words I’d defend in debate and why.

This active reading is so exciting to me.  It reminds me why I buy some books instead of always checking them out of the library.  But it shows me that books I cannot mark up can be captured in a short way by using a reading journal. And at last, I know how to keep a reading journal so that thoughts and experiences in reading aren’t lost in my foggy old brain.

What about you? How do you interact with your reading beyond ingesting the words of books, magazines, and news media? If you see a particularly fascinating Facebook post, how do you make it a part of who you are? How will you remember it five years from now?

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6 thoughts on “Active Reading–A New Adventure

  1. I was taught that method and it didn’t catch on with me. I have a hard enough time staying focused on someone droning on. Sigh. BTW, I found a $100 bill on the ground at the end of the rainbow on my 21st birthday.

    • Hi Luanne,

      Sorry, I thought I’d already replied to this–ditzy week. You’re right to keep a healthy skepticism about all the note-taking methods. I suspect they have to be as unique as the person taking them. Still, whenever I venture into a new method, I’m excited to try it.
      And congratulations on that $100 bill. WOW! You must have great positive energy to have such good luck. I hope you enjoyed that “wind fall” through every penny of it.

      Have a great day.

  2. I also forgot most of the books/movies/dramas that I read/watched. I find that it is very difficult to remember them after a few months. I need to revisit them, so that my memory is back. There are often movies broadcast on TV that I know that I have watched it before, but I don’t remember any of the content. I think it is a good method to write down the main points and revisit them often, so that things can be learnt.

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