Narrow It Down. Then Narrow That Down. Then Narrow It Down Again.
—Grace & Truth Linkup

Do You Remember What You Read?

I’d had Amanda Held Opelt’s new book, A Hole in the World, on hold at my library for months. Amanda published this memoir of grieving after multiple miscarriages and three years after the death of her well-known and well-beloved sister, Rachel Held Evans.

I’d read the Kindle sample when it first came out, and I knew it would be powerful.

The book finally became available from my library two weeks ago. I started and finished it in less than my allocated two weeks of borrowed time. It was worth the months-long wait.

But so what?

Now that I’ve read it, I ask myself:

  • What will I do with what I’ve read?
  • Will I change because of it?
  • Will I even remember reading it a year from now?

To help answer these questions, I’ve been changing my approach lately to the books I read. Here is my most recent experiment. 

1. TAKE NOTES

This part isn’t new. For years, as a sentence or paragraph stands out to me when I’m reading a book, I copy it into my now very large Word doc called Book Notes. I sometimes return to these quotes to refresh my memory about a specific book. Or I’ll happen upon them when I’m doing a word search through the whole document for a specific topic I’m interested in.

2. REREAD THE NOTES

But a couple years ago, I decided to become more intentional about rereading these notes. So on most days  now, I set a timer to read my old book notes for just 5 minutes. Will I ever finish at this pace? Probably not. But a little is better than nothing. And it’s been a wonderful experience.

3. NOTE THE BEST

Just last year, I’ve made one more critical change to this system: As I reread my notes, if I come across something I really want to remember to do or think, I add it to a much smaller document I’ve labeled To Do from Notes.

The notes in this document are very limited. They’re only the best of the best. They are the ones I can refer to for quick reference: if I need a new strategy to deal with a friend or to shift my mindset to halt a worry or to be compassionate to myself after a hard week.

For example,

  • From Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman I’ve noted:
    “Only one major project at a time. Tolerate the anxiety of not starting other things.”
  • From When Life Hits Hard by Dr. Russ Harris I copied this:
    “The single most useful response to any type of loss, crisis, or trauma is to focus on what’s in your control.”
  • From If God Is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk by John Pavlovitz, I’m keeping this:
    “Stay teachable and you’ll be more able to stay loving.”

Narrow It Down Again

Narrow it down.

Then narrow that down.

Then narrow it down again.

Isn’t this the way we create our lives?

We have overall dreams and values. We narrow those down to relationships and activities. Then we narrow those down to who I’ll see today and what I’m doing right now.

Big to medium to small.

It’s a reminder that even in the big picture, the small steps do matter. The small gestures. The small thoughts.

Even the small sentences.

When Amanda Held Opelt published A Hole in the World in 2022, she couldn’t have known I’d copy these particular sentences into my Book Notes file in 2023:

“You may not like who you are for a while, maybe a long while, after grief. It is wise, I think, to cover your mirrors after the death of someone or something you love. Suspend your expectations of yourself. Stop the performance. Stop worrying about appearances. Live fully into the new normal. Ask your friends to cover the mirrors for you. Accept grace from others, and show grace to yourself.”

Nor could she know that maybe in 2024 I’d reread those same words again. And possibly from that rereading, add this small portion to my my most important and shortest to-do list for myself:

“Accept grace from others; show grace to yourself.”

Narrow it down to one small thing at a time. 

While not every single book we read will change us—just as neither a single word we say or a single decision we make will change the world—the accumulation of them all together just might.


Share your thoughts in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Narrow It Down. Then Narrow That Down. Then Narrow It Down Again.
—Grace & Truth Linkup

  1. Natalie Ogbourne

    I appreciate your example of both being a lifelong learner and your willingness to put in the hard work of making what you read matter. I should also mention that I appreciate how well you pass along what you know. Thank you. You’ve spurred me to think, tools to use, and something to apply.

  2. Jean Wise

    I really really like your process and thank you for sharing it. I began this year recording each book on Goodreads plus adding notes there. I thought of rereading the notes, harvesting the words, but never thought of narrowing the lessons down even more. Great idea and applicable too.

  3. Nancy Ruegg

    Thank you for sharing your strategies-for-reading, Lisa. I too collect notes from the books I read, typing them into Word documents just as you do. (I stop myself at 100 pages and begin a new document–I’m on my third.) I also make an index, in a separate Word document, making it easier to find info or quotes related to certain topics. But I love your idea of synthesizing the good down to the best–something particularly applicable and perhaps life-changing. I’m thinking maybe a separate journal for collecting these gems might be worthwhile. Also love your idea of rereading the notes, to be blessed again by the instruction, wisdom, or encouragement we gleaned the first time. These are such practical ways to amp up the benefits of our reading. Thank you again, Lisa!

  4. Barbara Harper

    This is such a great idea. I struggle, too, with retaining what I’ve read. I make notes and sometimes even outlines. One of the main reasons I do book reviews is to remind myself what I want to remember from the book, and to have that information handy to come back to. I hope that the information in the book becomes part of my thinking even if I can’t remember specifics. But I love this further step of distilling the main point down.

    A lot of writing instruction tells us to have a clear takeaway for the reader and to keep it in mind as we write. As a reader, my takeaway may not be the same as what the author intended. But the sentence or concept that especially spoke to me was God’s reason for my reading that book. I’m going to have to start a “To Do from Notes” file.

  5. Harry Katz

    You’re way more systematic about this than I am, Lisa! This is exactly why I started blogging — to help me remember what I’ve read.

    I think most of the books I read contribute to a gradual accumulation of knowledge that hopefully makes me better informed and more thoughtful. It’s not often that I respond to a specific “call to action” from a single book, but it does happen and that makes those books even more memorable.

    Thanks for writing about your methods.

  6. Donna Reidland

    What great suggestions, Lisa! I make all kinds of notes in and about books. I sometimes add them to my prayer journal but what a great idea to start a document just for book notes. I can’t wait to start. I’m pinning this for future reference.

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