The “Brave New World” of the 21st Century requires a “Brave New Discipleship” strategy.

How to Get Your Mind Around a Book

Posted on: February 16, 2016

Mind around a book.001


It takes approximately 50 gallons of maple sap to produce a gallon of maple syrup. Seems like a lot of work, but Americans eat over a million gallons of maple syrup each year, and while there are no reliable statistics to prove it, my guess is that no gallons of maple sap are eaten. Point: the hard work is worth it.

In my experience, the same is true with reducing important information to the irreducible minimum, and then reviewing it often enough to achieve mental ownership. Last week, I gave you an example of the outline that I used to memorize the arguments for the existence of God.

This week, I want to describe the process I go through when I have read a book that is so important I feel I need to possess the information. By possess, however, I do not mean memorize. I just mean to become extremely familiar with it and to package it in a way that makes it very easy to review.

I find myself being very selective about the books I read, even those for “down time” recreational reading. I read fewer books than I used to, but I spend more time trying to make sure that I benefit permanently from having read them. I have frequently gone back to important books that have read in the past and, to my dismay, discovered that I couldn’t even remember having read them!

Just recently, I read Timothy Keller’s book entitled, Prayer. For me, it is either the best book I have ever read on prayer, or is certainly in the top three. After having read it, I said to myself, “I need to posses this material.” Here’s the process I went through to capture the information, which I now do this for all the really important books I read.

As I read the book, I underline as I go, just as I used to do for decades. But now, after I have finished, I go back through the book and use voice-recognition software to read a summary of the book back into Microsoft Word.

All content-dense books have chapters and subheadings within the chapter. So, using an outline format, I read the chapter heading into the voice-recognition software. Then I read the first subheading and anything I have underlined under the subheading. I’m able to be creative in supplying transition statements that are not actually in the text, but which help my summary to flow smoothly.

If I happen not to have underlined anything under a subheading I just leave the subheading out, and go on to the next. I do this until I have talked the entire summary of the book back into a Word document via voice recognition software.

The result is over a 10 times reduction of the content. For example, a book of 250 pages will condense to fewer than 25 pages. For example, Timothy Keller’s book is 266 pages long. It reduced to 14 pages.

This has two huge advantages:

  1. Greater immediate mastery of the content. I do this as soon as I have finished, while it is all fresh in my mind. Then I go back and wrestle with what to dictate back into the outline, what not to dictate back into the outline, how to create transitional sentences between underlined points, and how to summarize so that I may make a point in fewer words than the book, etc. This mental review drives the information more deeply into my mind than it was before.
  2. Greater ease of review. I rarely go back to the book after I finish the summary. I frequently go back to the summary, however. In fact, while it takes many hours to read the book, I can usually reread the summary in half an hour.

Another important point is that if there are really good quotes, or stories, or illustrations, I will read those into the summary. That way I don’t have to go back to the book if I want to use a quote or an illustration in anything I am creating.

This is a time-consuming process, but for those books that contain such valuable information in them that you tell yourself you simply cannot afford to forget it, this is an excellent way – and frankly the only way – that works for me.

Having said that, let me now talk about some related factors.

First, I do this with hard copy books rather than e-books. At first I became very excited about doing it in e-books. For example, you can highlight with your finger in an e-book as you read. Then, you can export the highlighted sections into Evernote, an on-line file storage system (see for excellent articles on how to use Evernote). However, creating a usable outline after that became cumbersome and discouraging, and I quit. You may have more luck than I did, if the possibility interests you.

Also, the mind works differently when reading a hardcopy book then it does when reading an e-book. Spatial memory is lost in an e-book. As a result, I tend to lose my perspective and my memory gets mushy. And, it is easier to write notes in the margin, to put stars by particularly important words, to draw arrows connecting related points, etc. I just found that it works better for me with a hardcopy book.

Second, I use Dragon for Mac as my voice recognition software. If you use a PC, Dragon (parent company, Nuance) has several options including Dragon Naturally Speaking.

I used to use the voice recognition software built into Microsoft Word, but began to have so many glitches with it that it wasn’t worth it – but that might just have been my computer and you may not have problems with it. And frankly, I’m having more problems then I’d like with Dragon for Mac, but they are only inconveniences, and are worth putting up with for what the software allows me to do. My understanding is that the software works better with PCs.

You probably won’t want to do it with all the books you read, but for anything you read that is so important that you cannot afford to let it go in one ear and out the other, this is a system that works very well for me, and I hope this was valuable for you.   Remember, if it’s big or neat, reduce and repeat!

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