How to Remember What You Read
READING TIME: 19 MINUTES
Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book?
The answer is simple but not easy.
It’s not what they read. It’s how they read. Good reading habits not only help you read more but help you read better.
“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Active Vs. Passive Readers
Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read. Another difference between these two types of readers is how the quantity of reading affects them differently. Passive readers who read a lot are not much further ahead than passive readers who read a little. If you’re an active reader, however, things are different.
The more that active readers read, the better they get. They develop a latticework of mental models to hang ideas on, further increasing retention. Active readers learn to differentiate good arguments and structures from bad ones. Active readers make better decisions because they know how to get the world to do the bulk of the work for them. Active readers avoid problems. Active readers have another advantage: The more they read the faster they read.
Think back to the books you studied in school. Despite the passage of time, most us remember a lot about them. Even if the details are fuzzy, we can doubtless recall the basic plots, main characters, notable themes, and motifs. Why? Well for one, we didn’t just passively read those books. We actively read them complete with class discussions where we took turns reading parts aloud, acted out scenes, or maybe even watched film adaptations. No matter how long it has been since we set foot in a classroom, we all probably remember Animal Farm.
Effective Reading Habits
Having a deliberate strategy to get better at anything we spend a lot of time on is a sensible approach. While we might spend a lot of time reading and consuming information, few of us consciously improve the effectiveness of our reading.
To get the most out of each book we read it is vital to have a plan for recording, reflecting on, and putting into action the conclusions we draw from the information we consume. In this article, we will show you how to get maximum benefit from every single page you read.
First, let’s clear up some common misconceptions about reading. Here’s what I know:
- Quality matters more than quantity. If you read just one book a week but fully appreciate and absorb it, you’ll be far better off than someone who skims through half the library without paying much attention.
- Speedreading is bullshit. The only way to read faster is to actually read more.
- Book summary services miss the point. A lot of companies charge ridiculous prices for access to summaries written by some 22-year-old with exactly zero experience in the subject matter of the book. This misses the point of not only reading but how we learn.
- Fancy apps and tools are not needed. A notebook, index cards, and a pen will do just fine. (For those of you wanting a simple and searchable online tool to help, Evernote is the answer.)
- Don’t read stuff we find boring.
- Finishing the book is optional. You should start a lot of books and only finish a few of them.
“Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something’.”
— Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive
A lot of success in reading boils down to preparation. What you do before you read matters way more than you think.
Filter Your Reading
There are no rules when it comes to choosing books. We don’t have to read bestsellers, or classics, or books everyone else raves about. In fact, there’s an advantage to be gained from reading things other people are not reading. This isn’t school and there are no required reading lists. Focus on some combination of books that: (1) stand the test of time; (2) pique your interest; or (3) resonate with your current situation.
The more interesting and relevant we find a book, the more likely we are to remember its contents in the future.
For older books or those that have been translated, check which version is considered to be the best. For example, the Hayes translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is regarded as being truest to the original text, while also having a modern (accessible) feel.
Get Some Context
A good place to start is by doing some preliminary research on the book. Some books – for example, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Palm Wine Drinkard – have a very different meaning once we know a bit about the life of the author.
For older books, try to understand the historical context. For books written in an unfamiliar country, try to understand the cultural context. Some helpful questions to ask include:
- Why did the author write this? (Did they have an agenda?)
- What is their background?
- What else have they written?
- Where was it written?
- What was the political, economic, and cultural situation at the time of writing?
- Has the book been translated or reprinted?
- Did any important events — a war, an economic depression, a change of leadership, the emergence of new technology — happen during the writing of the book?
Know Your Why
What are you reading this book for? Entertainment? To understand something or someone you don’t know? To get better at your job? To improve your health? To learn a skill? To help build a business?
You have to have some idea of what you want to get from the book. You don’t just want to collect endless amounts of useless information. That will never stick.
Before starting to read a book (particularly non-fiction), skim through the index, contents page, preface, and inside the jacket to get an idea of the subject matter. (This article on how to read a book is a brilliant introduction to skimming.) The bibliography can also indicate the tone of a book. The best authors often read hundreds of books for each one they write, so a well-researched book should have a bibliography full of interesting texts. After you’ve read the book, peruse the bibliography and make a note of any books you want to read next.
Match the Book to Your Environment
Although it’s not always practical, matching books to our location and circumstances can be powerful. Books will have a greater resonance as they become part of an experience rather than just supplementing it.
When choosing books, take a look at your own situation and decide on genres or authors that might help you overcome any current challenges. Whatever your state of affairs, someone has been in the same place. Someone has felt the same feelings and thought the same thoughts and written about it. It’s up to you to find that book.
- Traveling or on holiday? Match your book to the location — Jack Kerouac or John Muir for America; Machiavelli for Italy; Montaigne’s Essays, Ernest Hemingway, or Georges Perec for France; and so on. Going nowhere in particular? Read Vladimir Nabokov or Henry Thoreau.
- Dealing with grief? Read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Torch by Cheryl Strayed, or anything by Tarah Brach.
- Having a crisis about your own mortality? (It happens to us all.) Read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life or Theodore Zeldin’s The Hidden Pleasures of Life.
- Dealing with adversity? Lose your job? Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way.
- Dissatisfied with your work? Read Linchpin by Seth Godin, Mastery by Robert Greene, or Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
If I were a Dr., I’d prescribe books. They can be just as powerful as drugs.
Remembering What You Read
You’ll remember more of what you read if you do the following seven things while you’re reading.
Making notes is an important foundation for reflecting and integrating what you read into your mind.
The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. While there are hundreds of systems on the internet, you need to take one of them and adapt it until you have your own system. Some people prefer to record notes on index cards or in a commonplace book; others prefer a digital system. Notes are especially useful if you write on a regular basis, although everyone (not just writers) can benefit from making them.
Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing any meaningful passages or phrases. If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?
In The 3 Secrets That Help Me Write and Think, Robert Greene describes his notetaking process this way:
When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes … on the side.
After I am done reading I will often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards.
David Foster Wallace recommends a similar form of active reading (for more, see Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing):
Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on. It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh that was pretty good…” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.
As you are reading a book, write your chapter summary right at the end of the chapter. If your reading session is over, this helps synthesize what you just read. When you pick up the book tomorrow start by reading the previous two chapter summaries to help prime your mind to where you are in the book.
Decide that for the time you will be reading, you will focus on the book and nothing else. No quick Twitter checks. No emails. No cell phone. No TV. No staring into midair. Understanding and absorbing a book requires deep focus, especially if the subject matter is dense or complex. Remember, we are aiming for active reading. Active reading requires focus and the ability to engage with the author.
Referring to the time before the internet, Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: “In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”
If you’re struggling to stay focused on a particularly difficult or lengthy book, decide to read a mere 25 pages of it a day. It takes only a few minutes to nibble away at a challenging text. Completing a long book in this manner might take months, but at least you will have read it without getting overwhelmed or bored.
Mark Up the Book
Most of us were taught as children to treat books as something sacred – no folding the page corners, and no writing in the margins, ever. However, if you want to remember what you read, forget about keeping books pristine. I’ve spent a lot of time helping my kids unlearn the rule that books are not to be written in.
In fact, go crazy with marginalia. The more you write, the more active your mind will be while reading.
Jot down connections and tangential thoughts, underline key passages and make a habit of building a dialogue with the author. Some people recommend making your own index of key pages or using abbreviations (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes “BL” next to any beautiful language, for example).
The first time you write in a book can be unnerving, but in the long term, it leads to a rich understanding and a sense of connection with the author.
Billy Collins has written a beautiful poem on the joys of marginalia: “We have all seized the white perimeter as our own / and reached for a pen if only to show / we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; / we pressed a thought into the wayside / planted an impression along the verge. /… ‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.'”
Build a Vivid Mental PictureThe Learning Process
Most people think that consuming information is the same as learning information. No idea could be further from the truth.
The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn ideas gained through experiences – ours or others – that remain unchallenged unless we make the time to reflect on them. If you read something and you don’t make time to think about what you’ve read, your conclusions will be shaky.
One of the reasons that we read books is because they offer a rich tapestry of details allowing us to see the world as the author and go on the journey as they make connections and reflect. This allows our brains to learn not only the author’s abstractions but to learn when those abstractions are likely to work and when they are likely to fail (thanks to the vast amount of details).
Apply What You’ve Learned
So, you’ve finished the book. Now what? How can you use what you have learned? Don’t just go away with a vague sense of “oh yeah, I should totally do what that author says.” Take the time to make a plan and decide how to implement key lessons from the book.
Reading alone is not enough. We have to contextualize the knowledge. When does it work? When doesn’t it work? Where can I apply it? What are the key variables? The list goes on. If you can take something you’ve read and apply it immediately, it will reinforce the learning and add context and meaning.
The Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique is named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. You can think of it as an algorithm for guaranteed learning. There are four simple steps: choose a concept; teach it to a toddler; identify gaps and go back to the source material; and review and simplify.