“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
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. Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read.
There is another difference between these two types of readers: 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. They learn to differentiate good arguments and structures from bad ones. They make better decisions because they know what fits with the basic structure of how the world works. They avoid problems. The more they read, the more valuable they become. The more they read, the more they know what to look for.
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. We didn't just passively read those books. We actively read them. We had class discussions, 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.
Having a deliberate strategy for anything we spend a lot of time on is a sensible approach. But most people don't consciously try to get the most out of the time they invest in reading.
For us to get the most out of each book we read, it is vital to have a plan for recording, reflecting on, and putting into use the conclusions we draw from the information we consume. In this article, we will look at a strategy for deriving the 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. I know a lot of companies charge ridiculous prices for access to summaries written by some 22-year-old with zero life experience, but the point of reading for fluency is to acquire a repository of facts and details. Nuance, if you will. In this sense, you understand a bit more about why things work.
- 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.)
- We don't need to read stuff we find boring.
- We don't need to finish the entire book.
“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
Choose Your Books Wisely
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. 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 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 Why You're Reading the Book
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.
Skim the Index, Contents, and Preface
Before starting to read a book (particularly non-fiction), skim through the index, contents page, preface, and inside 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 Setting or Situation
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 books 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.
You'll remember more if you do the following seven things while you're reading.
Making notes is perhaps the single most important part of remembering what you read.
The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. You need to create 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.
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. (Focus is hard work. If you're lost, start here.)
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.'”
Stop and Build a Vivid Mental Picture
Building vivid mental pictures is one of the most effective techniques for remembering anything, not least what we read. When you come across an important passage or concept, pause and visualize it. Make the picture as salient and distinctive as possible.
Make Mental Links
Books do not exist in a vacuum. Every concept or fact can be linked to countless others. Making an effort to form our own links is a fruitful way to better remember what we read.
Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows:
The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiriting new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer's work. It gives the author confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory.
Keep Mental Models in Mind
Mental models enable us to better understand and synthesize books. Some of the key ways we can use them include:
- Confirmation bias: Which parts of this book am I ignoring? Does this book confirm my opinions? (Okay, but does it actually affirm your beliefs or are you just seeing what you want to see? If you cannot think of a single point in the book that you disagreed with, confirmation bias is perchance distorting your reasoning.)
- Bayesian updating: What opinions should I change in light of this book? How can I update my worldview using the information in it? Keep in mind the words of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
- Pareto principle: Which parts of this book are most important and contain the most information? If I had to cut 99% of the words in this book, what would I leave? Many authors have to reach a certain word or page count, resulting in pages (or even entire chapters) containing fluff and padding. Even the best non-fiction books are often longer than is imperative to convey their ideas. (Note that the Pareto principle is less applicable for fiction books.)
- Leverage: How can I use lessons from this book to gain a disproportionate advantage? Can I leverage this new knowledge in a tangible way?
- Incentives: What motivates the characters or the author? What are they seeking? What is their purpose? Here’s how Kurt Vonnegut described the importance of incentives in books: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
- Availability bias: Are the books I have recently read affecting how I perceive this one? How are my neoteric experiences shaping my reading? Am I assigning undue importance to parts of this book because they are salient and memorable?
- Stereotyping tendency: Am I unconsciously fitting the author, characters, or book in general into a particular category? Or is the author stereotyping their characters? Remember, there is no such thing as a good stereotype.
- Social proof: How is social proof — the number of copies sold, bestseller status, the opinions of others — affecting my perception of this book? Is the author using social proof to manipulate readers? It is not unusual for authors to buy their way onto bestseller lists, providing social proof which then leads to substantial sales. As a result, mediocre books can end up becoming popular. It’s a classic case of the emperor having no clothes, which smart readers know to look out for.
- Narrative instinct: Is the author distorting real events to form a coherent narrative? This is common in biographies, memoirs, and historical texts. In The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality, Hayden White explains our tendency to meld history into a narrative: “So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent… narrative is a metacode, a human universal… Narrative becomes a problem only when we wish to give to real events the form of story… This value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries. Does the world really present itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see “the end” in every beginning? Or does it present itself more in the forms that the annals and chronicle suggest, either as mere sequence without beginning or end or as sequences of beginnings that only terminate and never conclude? And does the world, even the social world, ever really come to us as already narrativized, already “speaking itself” from beyond the horizon of our capacity to make scientific sense of it? Or is the fiction of such a world, a world capable of speaking itself and of displaying itself as a form of a story, necessary for the establishment of that moral authority without which the notion of a specifically social reality would be unthinkable?”
- Survivorship bias: Is this (non-fiction) book a representation of reality or is the author failing to account for base rates? Survivorship bias is abundant in business, self-help, and biographical books. A particular case of a successful individual or business might be held as the rule, rather than the exception.
- Utility: If a book offers advice, does it have practical applications? At what point do diminishing returns set in?
Put It Down If You Get Bored
As a general rule, people who love reading never, ever finish a crappy book.
As Schopenhauer once wrote, “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.” Life is much too short to finish a bad book.
Nancy Pearl advocates the Rule of 50. This entails reading the first 50 pages of a book and then deciding if it is worth finishing. The Rule of 50 has an interesting feature: once you are over the age of 50, subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages. Pearl writes:
And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you are really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out. If it's not on the last page, turn to the penultimate page, or the antepenultimate page, or however far back you have to go to discover what you want to know… When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book…When you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover.
Nassim Taleb also emphasizes the importance of never finishing a substandard book:
The minute I was bored with a book or a subject, I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether – when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement… The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of the pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research.
“The things you're looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”
— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Most people think that consuming information is the same as learning information. This idea is flawed.
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.
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.
Think About What You Can Apply
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.
Teach What You Have Learned
Teaching others is a powerful way to embed information in your mind. This is part of the Feynman technique.
Upon completing a book, grab the nearest (willing) person and tell them about what you have learned. You'll have to remove or explain the jargon, describe why this information has meaning, and walk them through the author's logic. It sounds simple. After you try it the first time, you'll realize it's not easy.
If there is no one around who is interested, try talking to yourself. That's what I do … but maybe I'm crazy.
And if that doesn't work, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or post about it on Reddit or anywhere else where people are likely to be interested.
One of the benefits of our virtual reading group is that people are forced to actually think about what they are learning. We ask weekly questions on the assigned reading, and responses are diverse and thoughtful. The jargon goes away and people remove blind spots. It's incredible to watch. The result is that after reading a book with us, people say “I've retained so much more than I would have if I did it on my own.”
It was Schopenhauer who said, “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.” To escape this, you need to reflect on your views and see how they stand up to feedback.
Catalogue Your Notes
There are endless ways of organizing your notes – by book, by author, by topic, by the time of reading. It doesn't matter which system you use as long as you will be able to find the notes in the future.
Having a catalogue of everything you learn from reading creates a priceless resource which can be consulted whenever you need an idea, want inspiration, or want to confirm a thought. Over the years, you will build up a bank of wisdom to refer to in times of crisis, uncertainty, or need. It is hard to convey quite how valuable this can prove to be.
As General Mattis wrote: “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn't give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”
The options for cataloguing your notes include:
- A box of index cards, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading. Index cards can be moved around.
- A commonplace book (again, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading).
- A digital system, such as Evernote, OneNote, or plain old Microsoft Word. Digital systems have the added benefit of being searchable, which can save a lot of time if you refer to your notes on a regular basis.
Schedule time to read and review these notes.
Reread (If Necessary)
Great books should be read more than once. While rereading them can seem like a waste of time because there are so many other books to read, this is a misunderstanding of the learning process. The best time to start rereading a great book is right after finishing. The goal is not to read as many books as possible; I've tried that and it doesn't work. The goal is to gain as much wisdom as you can.
Rereading good books is of tremendous importance if we want to form lasting memories of the contents. Repetition is crucial for building memories. As Seneca wrote: “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”
There's no better way to finish this article than with the wise words of Henry Thoreau:
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.