Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reading for the fuzzy brain

Today's post is directed to the older woman. While younger women often find their biggest struggle is carving out time for reading, this is for the women who have the time, but may be struggling with a fuzzy brain.

For women, age brings quite specific physiological changes. Weight gain and mood swings may be a battle, but so also might fuzzy thinking, which is brought on by hormone fluctuations (to any men reading, I apologize for using the "h" word).

While I haven't experienced this as profoundly as some of my friends, I do have more occasions now when I struggle to concentrate and focus. On those occasions when I stand there trying to remember why I have come into the room, I am reminded I'm not 21 anymore. This phenomenon, of course, affects reading. I would like to offer some suggestions to help us older women take measures to foster better concentration while reading, specifically through writing.

One way to do this is to keep a reading notebook. Some people call them "commonplace books." In history past, commonplace books were a little bit like a diary, but were considerably less self-focused, and were more of a record of the content of reading. I think today's commonplace books can be a reflection of both what we read and how we react to it. Susan Wise Bauer in her book The Well-Educated Mind explains what this might look like:
It is neither an unadorned collection of facts, nor an entirely inward account of what's going on in your heart and soul. Rather the journal is the place where the reader takes external information and records it (through the use of quotes, as in the commonplace book); appropriates it through a summary, written in the reader's own words; and then evaluates it through reflection and personal thought.
If you're interested at all in looking at "how to read" books, Bauer's book is a good one, as well as Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. Adler's book is much drier than Bauer's but addresses a wider variety of literature.

Applying the principle of the reading journal as Bauer describes it is a way to keep focus and retain more.  Quite a few years ago, I read David Wells' No Place for Truth, and I kept a very detailed journal. That book has definitely stayed with me more than other books which I simply opened up and read.

You needn't buy an expensive journal, although doing so may inspire you. You can use a three ring binder and divide your reading by category. I did that for a while last year, but found that the binder was too big to take with me in my purse, and I like to have a book with me when I go out. I switched to Decomposition Books because they're inexpensive and my pens don't bleed through. Of course, the ever popular Moleskine notebooks are easily available. I don't care for the texture of their paper (pencil smudges), but they come in such pretty colours now.

If you don't like paper, you could also try Evernote. My daughter, a grad student, loves Evernote for note taking because it helps her juggle many notebooks easily. Tim Challies recently wrote a very good commendation for Evernote. Another paperless route is to start a blog. Writing for a blog we expect people to read encourages us to be certain we have really understood what we've read, and the actual writing of the blog posts processes what we've read.

Notebooking works great for Bible study. As you study a book, or as you read through the entire bible, whichever you do, keeping a notebook not only focuses your concentration, but when you're done, you have something your children might be very happy to have some day, when you're gone. Journals become artifacts, and artifacts help us preserve history.

Improving concentration may necessitate making changes. One thing I have done recently is to turn off all notifications from social media sites and email to my phone. That has helped a lot. Another thing I've done is to set a specific time duration for reading, 20-30 minutes. I take a little break and then start again. And I prefer to read in silence. Silence is a lost commodity these days.

If you aren't a woman who struggles with fuzzy thinking, these suggestions can work for anyone. If it is your goal to be more active in your reading, writing about it is a valuable exercise.


  1. Well said, Kim. Good thoughts. Michael Hyatt calls this the "Net Out" of a book. He outlines the process at:

  2. oh yes, I am experiencing this myself. I feel like I am in a haze! I have to write down almost everything some days!

  3. My husband and son are huge Evernote devotees, but not necessarily to keep up with their reading (wink). I use goodreads mainly to help me remember what books I've read (!) and a general impression of whether or not I liked it, both of which I sometimes have difficulty remembering. I have a friend who takes pictures with her smart phone of pages and quotes she wants to remember.

  4. Thanks for a great post for the more mature crowd! I found Tony Reinke's book, "Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books" very helpful in developing ways to help this older brain hold on to what I'm reading. I just need to work harder to put those things into practice. Blogging has helped, and I do keep a notebook with keeper-quotes. ("Lit!" isn't just for older folks, though. I've had both of my teens read it instead of Adler's book to help them through high school.)

  5. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler