June 20, 2024

Like many of you, I read a lot of books each year. Last year, I finished 63 and I should be pretty close to that number by the end of 2023. But reading a lot of books is not the same as being “well-read”. According to Collins Dictionary, “a well-read person has read a lot of books and has learned a lot from them.” How much have I learned – and how much of the learning can I recall?

I frequently find myself trying to recall a book I have read on the topic we are currently discussing. Maybe someone is asking me for a book I would recommend. Or I am trying to find additional information about a topic that I am teaching. Or maybe I am just trying to support a position that I am arguing for, and I remember an idea from a book that I read in the past. But which book was it? Who was the author? And what did that author actually say? In this post, I want to share a few helpful apps and methods that I have used to help me to remember what I am learning.

Remembering the title and author

First, I need to recall the title and author of the books I have read. Here I rely heavily on Goodreads.1 I first mentioned this app in a blog post back in April 2016. Amazon owns Goodreads. Therefore Goodreads makes it easy to add your Amazon book purchases and view your Kindle notes and highlights on the Goodreads site. But its primary value is in tracking what books you have read and what you thought about each one of them.

Goodreads also tracks the books you are currently reading and books you want to read. You can give a rating to each book, categorize it by putting it on a virtual shelf, and record when you finished reading it. You can write a review that your friends can see or leave a private note, only visible to you. Finally, you can see what your friends are reading – and what they thought about the books they have finished. If you know my Gmail address, you can add me as your “friend” on Goodreads.

Book highlights

Secondly, I need to remember what the author said about a particular topic. If I am reading a Kindle book (or an e-book in another format), I will go through my highlights on that book. To do this, I will open the Kindle app on my computer and do a search for a key word in the book that I have finished reading.

However I may not have highlights from the book I am trying to recall. The majority of the books that I am “reading” are actually audiobooks that I am listening to while walking, running or driving. So, I don’t nearly always have a Kindle version of the book to search.

So how do I recall content from an audiobook? I sometimes bookmark an audiobook at the places in the book that are noteworthy. However those bookmarks don’t show me the content in text form. I still would prefer to see that noteworthy sentence or paragraph in writing.

In the past, I sometimes would find the book on Amazon.com and do a search for the phrase or word that I had remembered from listening to the book. About a year ago, Amazon removed that ability to search within a book. But you can still often find a digital copy of that book on Google Books, and do a search for a particular word or phrase in that book. If an audiobook proves to be particularly helpful and insightful, I sometimes purchase the Kindle version just so that I can highlight the book. This only gives me the actual written text for study and research purposes.

Inexpensive ways to access books

I should point out that I do not purchase the majority of the audiobooks that I listen to. I may borrow them from a public library using my Libby app. But more frequently, I listen to them as part of my Everand subscription. Everand used to be called Scribd, but the name was changed in the last few months. For just a little more than $100/year, you can read or listen to as many books as you would like, as long as they are part of the Everand library. Yes, there are limits on how many books of certain types that you can access in one month. But I have almost never come up against that restriction. Although some popular books are not available on Everand, I have found that most Christian books are in their online library.

So, if I find a good book that I really want to learn from, I generally start by listening to it first. A typical “reading” process for me will be to first download the audiobook from Everand and listen to it until I am convinced that I need a text copy as well. Then I will either purchase the Kindle version or begin reading the e-book on Everand. While the Everand e-book reader app is not as robust as the Kindle reader, it is quite adequate. The app for listening to Everand audiobooks and reading Everand e-books is free. It is available for both Android and on the Apple App Store. If the book is fiction, or just not that great, I will only listen to the audiobook, often at 1.2 speed.

Revisiting highlights

But let’s get back to the topic of recalling important things that we read. Our brains do not function the same way as a Google search bar. We cannot immediately recall things we have read in the past unless we regularly review them. An article I recently read talks about the value of spaced repetition.

Similarly, we know that the brain preferentially stores information it deems to be important. It strengthens and consolidates memories of things it encounters regularly and frequently. So spaced repetition – revisiting information regularly at set intervals over time – makes a lot of sense.

Spaced repetition is simple, but highly effective because it deliberately hacks the way your brain works. It forces learning to be effortful, and like muscles, the brain responds to that stimulus by strengthening the connections between nerve cells. By spacing the intervals out, you’re further exercising these connections each time. It produces long-term, durable retention of knowledge, and in my experience, once people start using it, they swear by it.

Spaced repetition: a hack to make your brain store information by James Gupta

So, how do we regularly review what we have read? Let me introduce you to one of my newest apps – Readwise.2 If you click on this link when subscribing to Readwise, you get an additional free month, and so do I! A big thank-you to my good friend and colleague, Rob Magwood for introducing me to this helpful tool. Readwise is an app on your phone and a service that focuses on helping you revisit your reading highlights on a regular basis. An annual subscription to Readwise costs only $60 for the Lite Version (which is what I have).

How does it work? Readwise connects to your Kindle highlights and sends you a few of them each day in both an email and through the app on your phone. The app will tell you how many days in a row you have consistently reviewed your highlights. Then it will rank you with all the other Readwise users in the world. So a little bit of competition adds to the motivation. You can mark your favorite highlights, and you will then review these favorites on Sunday. You can also delete highlights that are no longer meaningful. By using Readwise consistently, it is as if I am re-reading the best parts of your favorite books each day. The reason those books meant so much to me the first time I read them comes alive again as I review those highlights.

Other highlights – and highlights of others

But that is not all that Readwise can do. It also will sync and import highlights from other apps such as Pocket. Pocket is an app which I use to save web articles worth saving. It also functions as a browser extension. With a click of your mouse, you can save a good web article you are reading to Pocket. Then in Pocket, you can highlight sentences that capture the most important ideas. Those highlights are then added to your Readwise resources. So, these highlighted sentences become part of the pool of learning shared with you in your daily Readwise review.

Furthermore, Readwise has its own Reader that can highlight PDF articles and save those highlights to your review list. Readwise will even enable you to review highlights of books that you never highlighted! This happens when you sync Readwise with Goodreads. In so doing, highlights of other readers of those books which you did not highlight will be added to your list of highlights. For example, I recently listened to Carol Dweck’s popular book “Mindset” but I did not highlight anything in the book, because I only had the audiobook. Well, a few Goodreads readers have shared their highlights of that book on Goodreads, and now those “Mindset” highlights are also part of the list of Readwise highlights I will be reviewing.

What about highlights that I have made in the Everand reader? Thanks to an enterprising young web developer, you can add a browser extension that will import your Everand highlights into Readwise as well.

A word about podcasts

Lastly, I know a number of our readers love podcasts. I have found a relatively new podcast app that will transcribe your favorite podcast episodes using Artificial Intelligence! It is called Snipd. It plays the podcast like any other app. But if you request AI processing, it will begin to transcribe the words being spoken. Then it will allow you to highlight the text that you want to remember. The free version of the app only allows you to see the transcription for podcasts that have already been AI processed. The premium version however will allow you to request transcription for all English podcasts. Yes, the highlights from Scribd also integrate with Readwise, so these highlights can also be included in your daily reviews.

Enriching our lives and our ministries

I recognize that this post is largely about technology. Nevertheless, it fits with the theme of lifelong learning, which is what this blog seeks to promote.

Many of us love books. I plan to read (or listen to) a few during the upcoming Christmas holidays. I am thankful that e-books and audiobooks are now available all over the world, generally with a few clicks of a mouse. No longer do cross-cultural workers feel that they are missing out on reading the best books of the year.

The question of choosing which books we should read is another question I addressed in this blog about 10 years ago. But what I want to emphasize here is that reading the right books and remembering what we have read are two different things. Recalling what we have learned is critical to having our reading enrich our ministry and lives over the long haul. Fortunately, we not only have tools and technology that make good books available to us wherever we might live. We also have tools and technology that helps us remember what we have learned.

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