Fireside Chats: How to Read Nonfiction

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!

6 thoughts on “Fireside Chats: How to Read Nonfiction

  1. This is super interesting. I’m relatively new to nonfiction and have been reading it like I would a novel, though I’ve not gotten into really dense academic or historical type nonfiction yet and what I’ve been reading so far has been mostly for the purpose of challenging/broadening my perspective rather than the dense sort of work that might actually benefit from a more rigorous reading practice so I’m probably not the best source for advice; but if the goal is to learn and retain then this method of skimming and then reading and taking notes seems like a better way to burn the info into memory than reading straight through, and I’ll keep it in mind for a time when I might get more into academic-type nonfiction too.

    As a fellow bad-memory reader I’ve been using a sticky notes and spreadsheet method to log quotes I want to “save” from each read; things I like the sound of and things that encapsulate main plot points and themes. I find this a good way to jog my memory later without having to flip through the whole book wondering where I should be looking, etc. It’s been a reliable enough way of tracking personal highlights that I’ve stuck with it for a few years by now, but it’s pretty casual. When reading specifically to remember I’d probably want to use a mix of notes and quotes, in some format- I remember from school that paraphrasing is good for memory, as is writing things out by hand, even though that could be daunting depending on how extensive your notes are!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, a spreadsheet is a great way to keep track! I just finished reading a book where I’ve marked off a few quotes and plugging them into a spreadsheet might be a neat way to keep track of thoughts/ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you are absolutely right about how to read non-fiction if you want to learn the most from it, and it’s how I approach all my academic reading. But for that reason, I am going to continue reading the (v small amount of) non fiction I read outside work like a novel, even though I know it means I don’t retain very much. I like it to end up in a different part of my brain than work reading 🙂 I’m going to make an exception for Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity, though, because I’ve got lost in it before and know I need to make a diagram of all the different sects and schisms as I’m reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That makes sense, since you’re in the throes of academia! You want to give your brain a break, haha. I think it definitely also depends on the type of nonfiction; sometimes more popular nonfiction can definitely be read lightly like a novel.

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  3. I’m so glad I am not the only history major with a shaky memory when it comes to nonfiction. I can faithfully and vividly recite the events of a fantasy novel I read in 2010, but I would struggle to give you a detailed summary of the Peloponnesian War. I don’t know why I have such a hard time retaining information garnered from nonfiction, but I do and it bothers the living hell out of me! I believe it has something to do with the way I was taught in middle and high school. School in general really. For as long as I’ve been a student, it seems like learning is more about the product than the process if that makes sense. Like, it’s less about engaging with the material and more about retaining it long enough so you can pass this arbitrary test. I’ve come across several monographs I was thoroughly interested in during my time in college, but the pressure of courses forced me to speed through them in order to complete the next assignment that decided whether or not I passed class. So a lot of the undue stress from school had a poor effect on how I retained the information long afterwards.
    As I prepare to graduate at the end of the month (I am incredibly nervous!!!), I’ve been contemplating on how I intend to change the way I consume nonfiction so I can begin teaching myself in a manner that compliments my learning style. One way I’ve been doing that recently is by reading non-fiction comics! I found it’s much easier to stay engaged and retain information when there are ample images I can associate with the knowledge with because I am a visual learner. So books like THIS PLACE 150 YEARS WE TOLD and AMAZON’S, ABOLITIONIST, AND ACTIVISTS a really good for that.

    As for reading prose non-fiction, I take it slow. Even if it is gorgeously written there is still a part of me that associates learning with the dread of going to school. So if I force myself to read more than one chapter a day, I will zone out. So, I’ll read one chapter once a day or once every two days and take notes on the notion app so I can go back and read them later. For physical book I own or bar from the library. Ebooks, I’ll just highlight the hell out of everything. I just like having digital notes.

    Oh! I found it also helps to talk about details of the nonfiction book with friends. 1. to just generate excitement and gush about what we’re learning and 2. There’s just something about talking to it with someone that reinforces which you’ve learned, thus making it easier to retain. I’m making my fourth attempt at reading THE BLACK COUNT by Tom Reiss and talking it over with a friend has been great because there is so much dope stuff to talk about that I’d really rather not forget.

    Anyway, enough rambling for me. Hope this helps! Hope you’re nonfiction journey goes well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First off, congrats on being close to graduation!!! It’s nervewracking for sure but exciting!

      I totally agree with you, particularly on this point: “Like, it’s less about engaging with the material and more about retaining it long enough so you can pass this arbitrary test.” It’s like you’re telling your brain to retain this information for just long enough to pass the test/assignment and then it’s free to forget it all!

      For me, my memory sucks all around lol, so I can’t even remember the events of a fantasy book I read last month!

      I don’t think I’ve ever read a nonfiction comic! But I’m definitely very visual so I can see that helping me with retaining information. I also really like your idea of only reading a little bit of nonfiction at a time, like a chapter a day, to give the brain time to retain the info.

      And YES to talking about it with someone! They say if you can’t explain something simply enough you don’t really understand it, and I’ve found that to be the case – if I’m telling a friend about a nonfiction read I find I have to parse through it in a different way than if I were just thinking about it to myself, and that helps me retain the information!


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