…the lesson is clear: a central challenge to improving the way we learn is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting.
(Make it Stick: Brown & Roediger)
I started my love affair with books in elementary school. By the time I entered high school, though, I noticed I was forgetting most of what I’d read. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember that I had read a book at all, much less remember what the book was about. This started a mild obsession of figuring out ways to remember more of what I’ve read. I wrote about books in my journal; I kept a running bibliography of books for a few years; I cataloged and reviewed books on LibraryThing.
My Library Notes app my current system to help me remember what I’ve read. While the app has only been on the App Store for a few weeks, I’ve been using this app for about three years. I’ve noticed that I use Library Notes differently for different kinds of books. Basically, there are four “levels” to how involved I am with a book, and I can use Library Notes for all four levels:
- For hundreds of books, I just use Library Notes as a book cataloging app. I just want a record that the book is in (or has been in) my personal library. (Alas, I buy more books than I read!) Title, author, cover image: That’s all I want. Because Library Notes can scan the book’s ISBN barcode and look up bibliographic information & cover images from the Internet, the cataloging process is fairly streamlined.
- For a lot of fiction books I read for fun, I add a little more information: A quick blurb about the book and a star rating. There’s no formula for how much I write about each book, but recently I’ve been happy with the following pattern: I write the names of the main characters and the rough plot arc. I’ll probably forget everything else about the book within a year, but this is enough to help me recommend books to friends: I sort my library by star rating, and then I can say, “Oh yeah! Have you read anything by Tana French? She’s great…” It doesn’t matter that I can’t remember the plot of In the Woods — I remember that I loved the book and that my friends will probably love it, too.
- For books I really want to remember, I use a technique I first learned from The Well-Educated Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer: I write down an outline of the book in my notes. This is much more intensive than writing a quick blurb when I’m done with the book. When I’m in this mode, I’m going back-and-forth between the book and Library Notes after each chapter, creating a chapter-by-chapter summary of what I’ve read. However, I’ve noticed two things: First, probably because of the work I’ve put into creating the outline, these books remain much more firmly lodged in my brain in the first place. Second, if I do need a refresher on what’s in the book, rereading the outline brings back a lot more detail than reading my quick “character-and-plot-arc” blurb. I save this for “serious” reading.
- Outlines are great. However, the science is clear: If you really want to cement something in your brain, the best techniques are active recall and spaced repetition. For the most interesting & challenging works I read, I spend time to create active recall prompts in my notes (either question & answer prompts, or fill-in-the blank prompts). I can then use Library Notes’ review mode to quiz myself on the prompts.
Library Notes isn’t an app for everyone, but I’m really happy with how it scales from “simple cataloging” to “advanced memory tool with active recall and spaced repetition.” It’s been a great companion on my reading journey. If you think it’s something that would help you, you can get it on the App Store now. It’s software made for the love of books, not to be a business, and is now and will always be free.