As a history major, one of my required courses was historiography, or the study of historical writing. I didn’t retain very much from the course, mainly because it was taught through the lens of colonial American history, which at the time did not interest me in the slightest (and still doesn’t, unless it’s filtered through Hamilton), but one thing my professor taught us left an indelible mark, and that thing was: how to read a historical monograph.
First, he said, study the way the book is put together: that is, look at the table of contents and how the book is structured. Quickly skim through the book to get a broader sense of the topics covered. Second, skim more carefully, reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Supposedly, if the monograph is well-written and well-structured, the first and last sentence of each paragraph should serve as summaries of the content in between. Third and finally, read the entire book, as you would normally read a book. Allegedly, this method of reading a work of nonfiction will ensure that you retain far more of the material than if you were to just read it like you would a novel. I can’t vouch for this method, having never tried it myself, but I have come to wonder if I should, despite how time-consuming it is.
Sometime last year I read Karen Armstrong’s A HISTORY OF GOD, which was essentially a comprehensive history of different interpretations and understandings of divinity in the Abrahamic religions. Necessarily, there were also sections devoted to the history of the development of the three Abrahamic religions, and Armstrong doesn’t spare the details. It was a fascinating and revelatory book, rich with new information, and yet, less than a year later, I remember only a minuscule amount, and most of it is very vague and broad. Out of a nearly 500 page book that I read relatively recently, I can recall no names or details or really anything off which I might be able to have or base a discussion.
Partly, this is because my memory is generally very shaky. But I also have to wonder if this is because of how I read nonfiction; I read it like I would a novel. That is to say, I read it in order, I don’t flip through future chapters, I don’t annotate or take notes or use sticky notes. I just read the book straight through. Sometimes I try to write a semi-detailed review after I’m done, but these reviews are never quite detailed enough.
I don’t read nonfiction for the same reason I read fiction. When I read a novel, I’m looking for entertainment; when I read nonfiction, I’m looking to learn. But if I forget everything I learn, then what is the point of reading nonfiction? This has led me to think harder about how I want to read nonfiction in the future, and what the best way to do that is. How can I make sure to retain the information? How can I make sure that I actually walk away with useful knowledge and details?
One thing I have been doing for the unfinished fantasy series I read is to write up detailed summaries when I’m done reading; these are broken down into categories like characters, worldbuilding, magic system, and plot. If I were to do something like this for nonfiction, I could commit to writing summaries like this and break them down by chapter, or by theme, depending on how the work of nonfiction is put together. I could also take notes as a I read each chapter, or diligently highlight important tidbits, and summarize each chapter as I read it.
Obviously, this is a lot more work than just breezing through a book, and it certainly feels more like a grad student doing research rather than a lay person just reading something for interest. But a lot of the nonfiction books I read are very dense! For example, at the moment I’m making my way through WOMEN IN NINETEENTH CENTURY EGYPT, a very academic historical tome. If I were to just read through that casually, I would enjoy it in the moment, but I wouldn’t retain any of the information from it even a week later. So I’ve resolved to take down notes as I read it, and this will be an experiment in how to read nonfiction. It’s a relatively short book, and on a topic I’m very interested in, so I’m going to use it as a test case to see how I can change my nonfiction reading habits.
There’s also the question of archiving what I jot down. Where do I keep all this information? Do I keep all the notes I take in a pretty notebook, dedicated to nonfiction notes? Do I type up summaries of my notes and store them in something like Evernote or Notion, or a private Tumblr like I’m doing for the fantasy book recaps? Do I just write very detailed Goodreads reviews? I have no answers to any of these questions, but I recognize that there is a problem to be solved, and one that I desperately want to solve.
Oddly, I always try to obtain physical, non-library copies of nonfiction books I intend to read, so that I can highlight/dogear/sticky note them to my heart’s content, and yet…I can’t remember the last time I actually did this. It’s definitely not because of any aversion to marking up books; I think it’s more just…laziness? It feels more like A Thing if every time I want to read a few pages I have to come prepared with my highlighter and/or sticky notes and/or notebook; again, it feels more like studying than relaxing with a book. But can one really “relax” with a work of rigorous academic nonfiction? You might think that having an ebook should solve this, as it’s so much easier to highlight, but personally I think it’s a nightmare to go through Kindle highlights.
How do you go about reading nonfiction? Do you approach it differently than fiction? Do you find that you retain the information you read? Do you have a dedicated method of annotation/summation that works for you? Do your habits change depending on whether the book is physical or electronic or a library copy? Does it depend on the kind of nonfiction? Am I overthinking this? Talk to me about your nonfiction habits!