Conscious reading

Twice a week, I have a time block on my schedule called Conscious Consumption. Most of the time, I don't consume anything during that time. Instead, I pull up the highlights and notes from previous consumption, books I've read, videos I've watched, podcast timestamps I've marked.

But let's start at the beginning. I've talked about the problem with audiobooks before, the fact that we tend to multitask while listening to them, the fact that there is no way to interact with the book we listen to. But what about reading? Do we really remember more from books we read?

I used to read books differently than I do today and, to be completely honest, typically didn't remember much. Sure, I remembered more than I did from audiobooks, at least for a while after reading them. Over time, that knowledge faded unless it got applied to my life in a tangible way.

Interaction is what makes us remember. When reading text books for school, I always highlighted the important parts, summarized them into my notes, created flash cards, and then studied those. It was effective. But I never considered applying those principles to my leisurely reading. After all, wouldn't that take the fun out of reading?

I didn't want to sit down with a book and write summaries and notes while I tried to enjoy a book. But I also didn't want to continue forgetting everything I read. So I started researching the issue. From writing outlines to the Zettelkasten method, I definitely found I was not alone in attempting more conscious consumption.

Without going into all the different ways people deal with the issue of forgetting what they read, I wanted to share my flow with you:

Since I no longer listen to audiobooks, I have started to actually read again. For years, I was proud to have reached my goal of 25 books per year, but almost all of them were audiobooks and looking back, I don't remember any of it, so I'll have read those that matter again.

Each morning, I climb out of bed, pick up my kindle and read non-fiction. I don't switch between books anymore. I pick a book and read it. If I don't enjoy it, I give myself permission to put it down. As I don't intend to finish the book, I remove it from my library permanently. No reason to keep a bad book lying around. Digital clutter is clutter, too.

I highlight passages and quotes that resonate, thoughts I want to remember, as I read. I have disabled the popular highlights to make up my own mind about what's important to me. It doesn't matter what resonated with other people. I need to know what resonates with me.

Every night, I read fiction. I curl up in my reading chair (thanks, Mom) and read until I'm tired enough to sleep. If I find that I still can't sleep, I climb back out of bed and read some more. I don't typically highlight much in fiction books, but I make sure that I understand every word. If there's a word I wouldn't be able to explain, I highlight it, so I learn it. Every once in a while, I highlight passages that contain excellent ideas, writing, or characters. But highlighting is not really a part of fiction reading. I read fiction to flee into fictional worlds, to live the lives of those characters. I don't need to remember those stories, I need to live them. It's okay if I can't remember what the name of supporting character X is. It's okay if I can't remember the details. It's fiction, after all.

Highlighting is part of reading for a lot of people. But what happens to all those highlights? That's where my approach likely differs.

Readwise is a neat little app that shows you random highlights every day, so you can rediscover what you have highlighted. A nice idea but not why I signed up for the service. They also offer syncing your highlights to popular note-taking tools like Notion and Roam. I use Roam as my tool of choice, so finding something that syncs to Roam was a game-changer.

Now, all my highlights are saved in my note-taking app. Every morning, I find the highlights from last night's reading and that morning's reading underneath my daily note (In Roam, there is a page for every day and related notes show up underneath, one of the best features of the system.). When it's time for my spaced repetition practice, I make sure to open those highlights, check for words or figures I want to remember and add them as cards. I don't do anything with all the other highlights at this point.

That's where the Conscious Consumption blocks on my calendar come in. During those times, I sit down in front of my computer or tablet, pull up the highlights from a book I have read and get to work. I usually open the highlights in the sidebar, so I can type in the main area. I go through each highlight, think about each highlight, consider why I highlighted it and what I want to take away from each highlight. I write a summary of sorts with all the associated thoughts and feelings, then reference the original text underneath, so I know what I was reacting to. I make my way through the highlights, often bundling multiple highlights into one paragraph of my "summary" when ideas come up again throughout a text. When I'm done, I read through my musings and create spaced repetition cards for anything I feel I should actually know and add a date to the top of my summary to revisit the summary in a couple of weeks or months depending on the subject. Thanks to how Roam works, adding the date means that I'll see the summary on that date without having to set a reminder or anything. It'll just be there at the bottom of my daily note, waiting for me.

I haven't done this for very long, so this is very much still a work in progress. But I already feel the difference. I remember much more from each book I have read, but more importantly, the active interaction leads to new ideas and concepts related to my own experiences or other books I have read. Ideas become connected, intertwine, and form new thoughts. It's a much deeper experience than just listening to an audiobook or mindlessly reading.

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.