So I was bemoaning my lack of narrative memory to another academic friend, bitching about how I can't remember plots & characters from one year to the next. "Every time I teach a novel," I said, "I have to re-read it. And the first time I read it, just to get a handle on it, I end up jotting down lists of characters & their relationships to one another on the flyleaf, & in the back I even write chapter-by-chapter summaries."
"Oh," she said. "You're studying. Shame our students haven't learned to do that."
Perhaps the best bit of advice I got during grad school was from John Taggart, who said simply, "Keep a reading journal." It was good advice, tho I didn't pursue it in any systematic way. Of course, I mark my books pretty heavily, and often I gist good quotations and overall arguments into various notebooks. But not really systematically, which is what I suspect he meant.
Over this past year, as I've been trying to expand my scholarly base into the "dark backward & abysm" of the Victorian era (concerning which expansion I mean to blog sometime soon), I've knuckled down and started doing this seriously. The last few batch of scholarly books I've read, I've marked them as usual, but I've also taken a few minutes at the end of each chapter (or each few chapters) to type up a thumbnail summary of the arguments. It's amazing how much better I seem to retain the books when I've taken the trouble to do this, even when I don't consult the notes.
Maybe this is just one of those expedients one is forced to when one doesn't have the steel-trap memory one did at 25 or 30. (Maybe I'll start posting notes to myself as to where I've left my keys and wallet.*) But I suspect it's pretty good operating practice for scholars in general, as well as students. I blush at how long it's taken me to start developing good study habits.
*When I was last in Tennessee, I spent a melancholy time in my mother's house, tearing down some of the last evidences of her failing memory before she went into the assisted living facility – the little "operating notes" she'd posted to herself around the house: how to work the microwave, how to set the thermostat, how to operate the garage door.