Why Reading Retention is Overrated

I’m a slow reader. I’m not proud of it but I’ve come to acceptance with the fact. If you give a 200 pg. fiction book from the Kroger checkout line to me and a third grader at the same time, the third grader would probably finish before me. The fact that I am a slow reader used to really bother me, especially when I started to see the importance of reading and wanted to read important books.

The reason I would get so discouraged was because I felt like I had to remember everything I read and take extensive notes on the book. This was even the case with fiction books. I was constantly taking notes and underlining ever single page. The reason this was so discouraging was because this caused my reading speed to plummet to new depths of snailitude. I would literally sit down with a book for 30 minutes and be lucky if I finished 5 pages, I kid you not!

All of this changed when I began to see how foolishly I was approaching my reading! My reading habits were largely shaped by a false understanding of reading. I believed that if I was not remembering everything I read then there was no point in reading at all! It was Douglas Wilson’s book Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life that opened my eyes to a whole new understanding of reading.

Wilson sets forth a view of reading that puts retention on the back-burner and consumption as the top priority. Wilson shows just how unlikely retention is no matter how slowly or intently you read a book. Retention is an elusive ideal that can only take place with an unhelpful amount of work. This being the case Wilson encourages the readers of his book to approach all their reading from a new perspective. He explains that ultimately, reading shapes the way we think. If you begin to read a really smart author you will begin to understand how they think. When this is the case it is not necessary to remember everything they have written because you now understand the way they think and are able to infer their perspective on a myriad of different subjects; possibly even subjects they never wrote about themselves!

As I have adopted this mode of reading for almost all the books I read I have not only seen the pace at which I finish books increase, I have also seen the amount of stress in reading greatly reduced. Instead of approaching the book simply to get and retain all the information I can from it, I approach books with the goal of learning the subject matter from the mindset of the author. The result over time is that your reading habits begin to shape your mental capacity. Your mind is influenced by the authors you read and whether you retain the information or not you necessarily retain both the writing and the thinking styles of the authors you read.

All this being said, I would recommend that you approach you reading in the same way. Retention is unlikely even under the most strenuous reading practices. Focus instead on coming to terms with the authors line of thinking and consume as much as possible!

Food for thought (literally)

Michael

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