How I Remember What I Read: Creating a Personal Database of All Things Interesting

I have trouble sometimes remembering what I read. This failing applies to nonfiction, fiction, books, and articles alike. It frustrates me endlessly. I like reading. Part of the reason I like reading is that in spite of the fact that you might be enjoying yourself, reading feels like a productive activity and one that has some educational value. I enjoy the thought that I’m learning, becoming wiser. But, what then, when you don’t remember what you read? Suddenly, what felt like productivity seems like waste.
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I comfort myself with the possibility that perhaps, even through my inability to recall particular details and facts, maybe the meaning and the meat of what I’ve read is still there somewhere waiting to be tapped into or is influencing me in small, subtle ways. But, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just all, gone.

And so, motivated by the fear that I’m not necessarily retaining what I read, I’ve been looking for a system and for tools to help.
I’ve tried a few things, from meticulously jotting down into notebooks excerpts and quotations to using applications like OneNote or Evernote, perhaps combined with bookmarking tools like Pocket. But all were lacking in one way or another. Now, after significant trial and error, I feel like I’ve got something that works. It’s not perfect (and I’m making little adjustments and improvements as I go) – but, it’s pretty good.

 

Why have a system?


What was wrong – what was missing – with the paper and pencil or Evernote solutions that I’d tried previously? Well, to get to that, I’ll illustrate exactly what I want in an ideal system:

I want to be able to recordI want to be able to keep in one place all the interesting things I findwhether it’s a couple of key sentences in an article on fitness, a paragraph or two from a brilliant essay in an online magazine, or a sentence here and there (as well as my own comments) from a book I’ve read.

I want to be able to organize. I’d like to have some sort of folder/categorizing/tagging system. That way I can keep my notes together and organized by subject or area of interest. And I’d like to have the ability to keep this pretty detailed.

And I’d like to be able to search. A year from now, I want to be able to search, by tag, within my notes, within original text, for phrases like “Memory” or “Montaigne” or “The Civil War” and see everything I’ve ever found interesting about or including that language. I want to be rid of the moments when I think maybe I read something kind of about something in a particular book, only to never locate it.

I want to use this to find things as I recall them or to find things after I’ve forgotten them. A quick skim through such a catalogue may help me rediscover thoughts or interests I had a few months ago but had since abandoned. I want to keep a careful, curated breadcrumb trail of all my interests.

In short, I need a system that allows me to record, organize, and search.

For me, what has ended up working has been the research tool Zotero.


Why Zotero, and how do I use it?


In terms of the basics of what Zotero is, I’ll let them speak for themselves. The below was pulled from their About page,

Zotero is a free, open-source research tool that helps you collect, organize, and analyze research and share it in a variety of ways. Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best aspects of modern software and web applications, such as the ability to organize, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero interacts seamlessly with online resources: when it senses you are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, it can automatically extract and save complete bibliographic references. Zotero effortlessly transmits information to and from other web services and applications, and it runs both as a web service and offline on your personal devices.

To get a sense of what the landscape of the tool looks like while in usage, below is a screenshot of my working version of Zotero. As you can see, it looks very different from your traditional bookmarking and note-taking tools. This, for me is perhaps one of its biggest advantages. It’s designed to be a research tool, and thus the focus is on organizing and sorting your information rather than on writing or on developing ‘read-later’ lists. With this in mind, it’s incredibly powerful. Should you so desire, you could sort, tag, categorize, and annotate all your favorite quotes from all your favorite books and then search within, sort, and rearrange these quotes according to different themes or topics. You can do so quickly and without disrupting the underlying data. Every document you add is saved as an item, which you can then add notes to and tags to and store within folders.

 

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Figure 1

To provide a bit more detail, here is how I use it:

1) While reading online, if I come across something I want to store and remember, I save it with the Zotero bookmarklet and it automatically saves a copy of whatever I was viewing. In addition, any text is auto-indexed and made searchable. When saving the material, Zotero also automatically adds in any available metadata (things like Author, Website Name, Article Title, Date Published). When I next go into Zotero, a new entry will have automatically have been added and the metadata populated.

 

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Figure 2, Zotero Bookmarklet; source: zotero.org

2) With my items now in Zotero, I can sort and arrange them within a folder structure of my choosing. Zotero also allows for the same item to be stored within multiple folders – for those cases where mutual exclusivity just isn’t possible and I can’t decide if something should fall under ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Psychology.’

3) For each item in Zotero (remember, an item is a document – a book, magazine article, etc.), anything that I find myself wanting to highlight or remember, I add as a note. Notes are attached to specific items, and you create notes as you need them. For some articles, I have one to two notes. For a book, I may have over 100. To keep things organized, I’ll assign each note a number so that each note/highlight stays in sequential order, just like how it appears in the text. (If numbers aren’t used, Zotero by default sorts alphabetically.)

As an example, see Figure 3 below. The middle pane currently shows all the notes (lines prefaced by a yellow sticky note) that are attached to the item Life’s Stories, the name of an article that appeared in The Atlantic. The rightmost pane shows the details of the particular note that is currently highlighted. As I read an article, if there are particular excerpts that I find interesting or want to remember, I will copy it over as a note. By making something a note, I give myself a higher chance of finding it again in the future. It also now appears in my reading pane. Another way of thinking of it is your notes are all the quotes you would want to write down.

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Figure 3

4) On a note level as well as an item level, I assign tags according to topic or theme so as it make it easier for me to locate the note or item later. Tags work across folder structures and allow for an even more specific level of detail. Many tags can be assigned to a single note or item.

As an example, I’ll refer again to the note that appears above in Figure 3. The text of the note reads:

It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”

I assigned to this note the tags ‘trauma,’ ‘resilience,’ and ‘personal narratives.‘ Although these words themselves don’t appear in the excerpt, they do describe concepts the excerpt touches on. In addition, these tags are topics I have some interest in and could imagine myself wanting to search for in the future. By adding these tags, I increase my chances of finding this note when I’m looking for it. There is certainly an art and some subjectivity in determining what words to use for tags and how many tags to assign to a note. I always try to imagine the different angles from which I might want to discover the text again in the future and then design my tags to fit that.

5) Once I have a few items in my Zotero database, I can perform advanced searches, utilizing any or all of the features mentioned above – full text searching through the original document, within particular folders, through the notes I’ve added, or through tags.


A note on physical books and other non-digitized material,

Zotero can automatically locate book metadata (author, predefined tags, publisher, call number, etc.) given an ISBN number. But, the rest of the process is of course rather manual. Typically my method now is that as I read, I highlight and add notes in the margins of the physical book. Then, every few chapters or so, I go back in and type up each highlight as a note attached to the book entry in Zotero. Each note is assigned tags that I think are relevant. I have to admit that this is a time consuming process and for books that you’re reading purely for entertainment value with less care for what you remember/get out of it, this type of process probably doesn’t make sense. However, for books where you are reading as much (or even more) for information as for entertainment, where you want to remember what you read, I find the act of going back and typing up the sentences and paragraphs that were most salient to me incredibly valuable in helping to cement, digest, and thus retain what I’ve read. And then, once done, you have the important parts of the book digitized, categorized, and more accessible to you in the future.

 


The Result?


In the end, I have a carefully organized, easily searchable, personal database of anything and everything that I’ve ever read and found interesting. I can look up a topic or keyword and find documents I had forgotten about. Through my tagging system, I can make connections between different things I’ve read, where it may not have been evident before that it was possible for connections to be made. Through a cursory skim, I am inspired over and over again. And I actually have a chance at finding that particular quote that was in that one book about that one thing, should my memory fail me.

Zotero is free and open source, so I encourage you to give it a try and see if it works for you. https://www.zotero.org/ (In case it wasn’t obvious, this isn’t sponsored by Zotero/I have no affiliation with them. I just like their software.)

*And if you’re really into data, you can export your Zotero data in a variety of formats to have a different sort of personal database to play with.

 

 

 

The Memories That Hide in Bookshelves: On the Books We Share in Relationships

When a relationship ends, what do you have? Memories? Photos? If you’re me, books. I’m big on books and knowing what the other is reading, what they like to read. And sometimes, perhaps early on, or a few weeks, a few months in to seeing someone, there may be a book, recommended sincerely, which I will accept and endeavor to read.

So I have, hidden in plain sight amongst my shelves, books that hold within them much more than their stories. When I read a book that has been recommended to me, I read it in the context of, in the full knowledge of, the fact that it was chosen for me by someone else. Just as I will fondly remember the seaside every time I think about the book Mrs. Dalloway as it was read against the backdrop of the ocean, I will forever associate certain books with certain individuals as they were read in the context of, against the backdrop of – them. And if we’re dating, or thinking about dating, the experience of reading that book is all the more vivid, and important, because of that person. And when the relationship ends, the book is still there, on my shelf.Thus, intertwined with the stories are memories, associations, pains, and hopes. And a glance at the spine of a book can quickly bring that all back.

The types of feelings vary, some are lighter than others. Skimming through the titles and testing the feelings, I sway from rushes of nostalgia – to the grateful, ‘Good Riddance!’

How does your bookshelf look? These are five titles that for me bring all the memories back:

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly and The Guy I Wish I Could’ve Liked More


This was a good recommendation from a good guy. First, on the book itself – Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French Elle magazine suffers a stroke and when he wakes up from a coma, he finds himself “locked-in.” That is, though his mind is fully functioning, his only way of communicating at all with the outside world is through blinking with his left eye. As one can imagine, this is catastrophic and Bauby struggles to come to terms with this new reality. However, with the help of a nurse, he learns to communicate, to spell out letters and then words through this blinking (differing numbers of blinks per letter). Through this method, Bauby himself was able to write this book. It’s moving and heart-wrenching and kind of amazing. How does one cope with a tragedy like this? How does one learn to hope?

The guy was probably as good as the book – kind, intelligent, considerate – and I feel a small pang of guilt and regret whenever I think of this book. And while I bought the book while I was still talking to him, I read it after we’d stopped. In the back of my mind then, while I was reading and enjoying the book, were thoughts like What a great book – why didn’t you give him more of a chance? He was the perfect gentleman and very considerate. A mutual friends today still guilts me today for ending it. But, you can’t pick who you like. And now the book serves as a bittersweet reminder of the fact.

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby


Lord of the Flies
 and Being Scared Off


Full disclosure: I have never read this book. Somehow, it was never assigned to me in school and I never picked it up later in life. And even now that I own a copy, I’m not sure I’ll bring myself to read it. But who knows, maybe one day, I will.

As to how I came to obtain the book. I met this really nice person while I was living in Copenhagen. First date, since I was new to the city, was on one of those double-decker city sight seeing buses. It was fun, different, thoughtful. He was very friendly and talkative. And while I wasn’t overwhelmingly attracted to him, I was drawn to his “niceness” and based on that, agreed to see him again. Between Date One and Date Two, there were a lot of text messages, a call even. It was all nice and sweet and nothing to complain about, except that I could feel that invisible pressure that comes when you know things are a bit one sided. And then there was Date Two. About five minutes in, I was feeling uncomfortable. He was too interested, too forward, in a way that was miles ahead of what I could match. I had secretly resolved that I probably wouldn’t agree to see him again, when, maybe ten minutes into the date, he pulled out – a present. My heart dropped. It was nicely wrapped. It was an old, worn copy of Lord of the Flies. Inside the front cover were a letter and two photographs. It turns out that this was his copy of his favorite book. He’d read it while traveling and the photographs were of the places he’d been to while reading it. My heart sank as far down as it could possibly go.

I made it through the rest of the dinner. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him then that I wasn’t interested, and a part of me was debating whether I should give him a chance. The next day I called him and told him I didn’t think it would work. He said I could keep the book.

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Lord of the Flies by William Golding


This Side of Innocence
 and Discovering Another Person


This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell isn’t, at least today, very well known. I had to order a used copy online and I think it’s out of print. First published in 1946, it was a bestseller. I liked it. There’s an unhappy marriage, secret passions and infidelity, the breaking up of a marriage, followed by a new marriage that is always tainted by the betrayal. There’s this general sense of woundedness and hurt and the elusiveness of happiness, especially in love. A passage I highlighted that captures this sense well is, “Happiness. Not even the founders of America had declared it as an inalienable right of man. Only the ‘pursuit of it.’ There was wisdom, there was understanding, there was sad cynicism. One only pursued it. It was rarely, if ever, attained, and then only briefly, like the sun shining for a moment through a rack of dark clouds.” Along with this view on happiness, there’s also this underlying empathy throughout the book and a recognition that pain exists in all.

I read this book, his favorite, and he agreed to read my favorite book. We didn’t know each other well. He lived somewhere else (we’d met at his going away party), but that process of reading each other’s favorites was really kind of special. I believe your favorite books are your favorites because they seem very true to you. How things happen and in particular how things end as well as any social, political, or philosophical undercurrents all ring true to you and describe to you either how you think the world is, or how the world ought to be. And that’s the way it felt when I read this book. This, I thought, is how he sees the world, and what a privilege for me to know.

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This Side of Innocence by Taylor Caldwell

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Losing Yourself


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a great book. It’s a really popular book, an international bestseller even. It’s just not really my kind of book. I’ve never been one for thrillers. And yet I read this book and the other two books in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This is a whopping 1,780 pages of book that, to be frank, I didn’t really enjoy. I read them because an ex boyfriend really wanted me to read them with him, and so I did. And unlike the previous example, where the reading was a process of discovery and learning about the other person, this – wasn’t. We were just reading the book at the same time and comparing how far along we’d gotten.

Now that it’s a few years later and I can look at that relationship with clearer eyes, these three books serve as a strange symbol for what not to do and how things can go wrong. Simple things, like, don’t rearrange your life for someone else, recognize when you’re just giving, giving, giving into nothing, and don’t, don’t read 1,780 pages (“recreationally” at least) that you don’t enjoy, for anyone. Or you should probably at least stop after Book One.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

How the types of stories we tell define who we are

The way we remember the events in our lives, and in particular, the traumas in our lives, can shape us as much or more than the events themselves.

 

unknown-1769656_1280Stories have the ability to take the events of our lives – big, small, grand or trifling – and from these establish cause and effect, impart and distribute importance, tie together the disparate, cast details aside, hint at symbolism and meaning, moralize, criminalize, and summarize.

How many hundreds, thousands of stories can you tell from a day, an hour, a relationship, an encounter? How many different stories can we tell from the same memories, from the same life? I am good and you are bad – or perhaps, it’s the other way round.

The stories we tell and believe define who we are.

 

Stories Help Us Make Sense of Ourselves

In an excellent article on “life stories” and how the narratives we construct from the events in our lives define who we are and how we perceive the world, Julie Beck explores the links between personality and memory, the self and our stories.

We remember our lives not as lists of facts but in narrative arcs. In order to hold onto the multitudes of memories we create, we turn these memories into narrative. Whether or not we write them down, in our minds, we pick and choose what is important, establishing connections and creating meaning as memories are turned into stories.

A hypothetical – We may remember the painful breakup as the impetus to study abroad. The decision to study abroad may be labeled as the life changing experience that sparked a desire to move later to Asia, where we met our spouse. The bullying in high school led to a stronger sense of empathy and compassion. We establish links. Consciously or not, these narratives become a form of identity. The things we choose to remember and how we choose to remember them can reflect and shape who we are.

These can change. We can rewrite. The fondly remembered, whirlwind first few months of a romance that we hoped would last, might, after a breakup, suddenly be remembered differently – perhaps there were hints of the end lying underneath all along. Perhaps these darker memories take on a greater or at least a different importance than they did before.

And while there isn’t a right or a wrong way to remember, how we remember can significantly impact who we are and how we learn from our experiences.

 

How the Types of Stories we Tell Matter

Beck tells us of the power of the redemption story. A redemption story starts off bad but ends better and having redemption themes in one’s life is generally associated with greater well-being.

Writer Andrew Solomon has a fascinating TED Talk called, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He speaks of childhood trauma, in his case being bullied at school:

I survived that childhood through a mix of avoidance and endurance. What I didn’t know then and do know now, is that avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning. After you’ve forged meaning, you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity. You need to take the traumas and make them part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt.

Solomon was able to turn his trauma into a story of triumph, a redemption story. He says that, “while we don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities…we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences.” Sometimes by going through suffering and through difficulty, we are able to learn so much more than we perhaps otherwise would if life had been easier. Solomon is careful not to glamorize suffering. “Forging meaning and building identity does not make what was wrong right. It only makes what was wrong precious.”

And Solomon isn’t the first to draw these conclusions. In James Baldwin’s beautiful, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” where he speaks of the oppression that Blacks have suffered in history in America, he writes,

This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, learns something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church—can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable.

The ability to find truth and redemption from our tragedies, and the ability to internalize this meaning into our own personal stories, can strengthen our identities and our experience of the world.

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James Baldwin

There is an important distinction to make however, that Beck, Solomon, and Baldwin all allude to. We have to be able to turn these traumas into triumphs, into redemption stories in order to obtain these lessons and meaning. Solomon tells us, “We cannot bear a pointless torment.”

Sometimes however, we never create the redemption story. Sometimes, the story isn’t told. It’s repressed. This might come from shame or fear. If a story isn’t created and told, “your memory for that event may be less flexible and give you less chance for growth.”

There can be a darker side to our stories. The alternative to the story of redemption can be one where the individual positions oneself as the victim. This is especially dangerous when a group of traumatized individuals identify themselves as victims of a group of villainized “Others.” A story of victimhood can turn into what author Amin Maalouf characterizes as the propensity of persons to turn to violence when they suspect they are being threatened. James Baldwin warned against the same as he saw the rise of militant black groups in response to their oppression.

And a possible key towards preventing victim thinking? Philosopher Jonathan Sacks in his book on violence recommends empathy. “To be cured of potential violence toward the Other, I must be able to imagine myself as the Other.”

Truth is multifaceted. And almost as important as how the action played out, is how the action is told after the fact, whether it as a part of our own personal story, or in a story of something bigger than ourselves. We can teach and we can also hurt each other depending on the types of stories we tell. In life and in history, the stories outlive the actions.

“The story of things done outlives the act” and “a thing said walks in immortality if it has been said well.” The bards also, Homer-like, “straightened the story . .  . in . .  . magic words to charm all men thereafter.” They did not merely report, they also set it right — Aias had slain himself from shame, but Homer had known better and “honored him above all men.” (from The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt)

 

On Glimpsing More of Those We Love

The beauty of discovering our loved ones through their writing, from the to-do list to letters to marginalia

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I was listening to a podcast some weeks ago where one of my role models, Krista Tippett, was interviewing another of my role models, Maria Popova. It was a lovely conversation that explored the meaning and wisdom Maria Popova seeks to create through her popular blog, brainpickings.org. Anyways, Maria Popova said something that resonated with me. She was speaking of her great grandfather who she never met and of discovering some of his books.

“And he had — his marginalia were extraordinary. And I felt this strange kinship with him through the years, through the cultures and the eras and these different media. Because what I do when I read is essentially what he did, which is he wrote in the margins all these notes on things that he didn’t understand and wanted to understand. He underlined passages that he noted were beautiful language. And words that he didn’t know that he would look up in the dictionary, he would circle them and then write the translation. But it was this sort of intellectual dance with another mind that you could see in the margins of his books. And I was just very moved by it.”

And what a beautiful thought. She was able to see a very authentic and private side of the great grandfather she never knew through his notes and marginalia. I think there’s something special about it being his own personal notes. Not really meant for other eyes, our private notes are less self-conscious, less filtered, and thus more intimate, raw, and authentic.

I was reminded of something the philosopher Theodore Zeldin has once said, that one may often know better one who is dead that we have never met from what they have left in their private writing and letters than we may know those we interact with in the flesh. In the flesh, in “real life,” we conceal so much and present only small reflections of ourselves to those we meet and interact with. And even with those we love, how often do conversations go beyond the surface, past the day to day conversations about an upcoming dinner to plan for, a child’s problems at school, or an event on the evening news? And when we do go a bit deeper (into feelings or religion, for example), aren’t we so careful not to offend?

And so it is a luxury, something quite special I think when we’re allowed into the private notes of someone we love, or someone we might have loved. And when we can have ‘conversations’ with someone from the past, through interacting with their written words.

My dad wrote once about discovering the letters of his grandmother among his father’s possessions after his father passed away. He found several letters and scraps of letters written by his grandmother in the weeks before she died. Several of them are crumbling and close to falling apart from how often it appears they’ve been reread. My dad, in discovering these letters was incredibly touched. He had a record of letters from mother to son, revealing a grandmother he never knew and a side of his father too that he hadn’t seen. My dad wrote of the find, “It is literally hearing a voice from the past. Someone I remember so little about because I was so ‘wee’ when she passed away has now been revealed to me and I now feel as if I ‘know’ them a lot better, it’s almost like being graced with a peek into their soul.

There’s something very beautiful about being granted access to more of those we love and especially in the intimate way of reading their writing, which is the very closest thing to their thoughts.

Even the mundane can be special. I recall a tweet I saw from Alain de Botton in January, “Glimpsing someone else’s to-do list – like watching them sleeping – tends always to be endearing.” Isn’t it? It’s the person, the person themselves without the pretensions and cover up that we’re interested in and each opportunity we have of glimpsing this is truly special. Even the to-do list and marginalia in books.