How Do You Hold Onto What You Read?

This is a guest post by Ashley Riordan. Ashley is a graduate student in California who works in a library, makes videos about books at climbthestacks.com, and blogs about reading, writing, and travel at ashleyriordan.com. Follow her on Twitter @climbthestacks.

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I am convinced that every book I love is going to be the one that changes my life. I burn through the pages, covering them with black ink, underlining every sentence. I cannot believe how specifically this book applies to my life or how it is rearranging my normal pattern of thought. I finish it in a hurry and convince all of my friends they have to read it right away. Then I put the book on a shelf and almost immediately forget about it.

Forget is a strong word. I remember that I loved the book and even continue to recommend it to other people, but what was specific about it and what nobody but those who read it could understand is quickly lost to me. Fiction has a way of taking over my life and coloring the way I see everything for a brief period of time, and later it is hard to even recall those experiences in any detail.

I recently read a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called How to Be Alone that gave me an entirely new way to think about what it means to be a reader. I was so full of ideas as I was reading and forming quick connections with other things I had both read and experienced. But when I sat down to write about the book weeks later, I could no longer remember what had been so profound about it and was at a loss to explain the experience I had reading it.

I am generally bothered by how much of life we lose, either because we never notice it or quickly forget. So in a desperate attempt to at least hold on to what I can, I put effort into remembering what I read.

The easiest and most obvious way I remember what I read is by keeping my books. I have moved several times in the last ten years and have a penchant for getting rid of everything I own, but I keep most of what I read because seeing a book on my shelf helps me to recall the experience I had reading it and looking at the pages to see what I underlined reminds me more specifically why the book mattered to me. The book itself serves as a reminder of both experiences and ideas.

Last year I started keeping a public quote blog. It started as an effort to share what I was reading, but for me it is a way of holding on to the passages from each book that I find most meaningful. I can search by topic, author, or book, but my favorite feature is that when other tumblr users share a quote, I get a notification and am reminded of a random excerpt I have probably forgotten.

The best way I have found to hold on to what I read is to talk about what I read. If I articulate my thoughts on a book, they have a much better chance of staying with me.  Being forced to talk and write about what I have read is what I miss most about the classroom. It took me a while to realize that the internet was interested in having those same discussions if I just made the effort to express my thoughts on a book, whether in writing or on video. While sharing and getting feedback is the fun part, it is meaningful to me to have a record of my reading experiences.

Even with these efforts, a lot of what I have read is still lost to me. The book I thought would change my life is robbed of attention by the next I am sure will change my life. I love too many books to keep them all at the front of my mind. But these small little things I do are a way of calming my anxiety about the way life moves too quickly, and they allow me to fully experience what I have read and re-experience a book whenever I choose.

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