Reading and remembering

It’s easier to read than to remember what you’ve read. I used to struggle to remember what a book was about, even just a few years after reading it.

I don’t have this problem anymore. In a few recent conversations about books, people have asked me how I manage to remember so much about books I read a long time ago.

I don’t think it’s because my brain has got better at remembering things. I think I’ve picked up habits from various places that put the information from books into my brain so that I remember it better. I now have a simple but powerful approach I use when reading most non-fiction books.

The basic structure of this approach is:

  1. Get a broad overview of the book.
  2. Read the book, slowly, noting key ideas and passages.
  3. Summarise the book.
  4. Occasionally review the summary.

Getting an overview

This first step happens almost automatically for most people before they decide to read a book. It involves some meta-reading, and answering a few questions:

  • What is this book about? When was it written?
  • Who is the author? What is their background? Why did they write this book?
  • Which related books are out there? Why read this one rather than the others?
  • What is the structure of the book? What are the key ideas?

As part of this process I usually skim through the book, reading the introduction, the contents, the first few lines in each chapter, and the conclusion.

The static nature of a book means that an author writing about lots of interconnected ideas is forced them to write about them sequentially. If you know what’s coming later in the book, you can make links to that material while reading the first few chapters. This is why some people like to read books multiple times. (it’s also why some TV shows are better the second time you watch them)

Reading

I read non-fiction on Kindle, unless there are important visual elements (e.g. Godel, Escher, Bach) or the book is only available in print. The neat thing on Kindle is that you can easily highlight pieces of text, add notes, and look up words or concepts.

If I’m reading a physical book I’ll either mark passages with a pencil and keep an index at the front of the book or write down key ideas and pages on a separate piece of paper, or take pictures of passages.

I read slowly. This is intentional. With many books, it’s possible to read them and get the key ideas in just a few hours. Some people advocate increasing your reading speed so you can easily read multiple books per week. (if reading more is your main focus, you could consider reading book summaries instead)

It’s true that reading faster allows you to read more. But if you want to remember what you read, and generate useful knowledge and incremental understanding, it’s important to integrate new ideas with your existing knowledge. For the special case of self-help books, it’s crucial that you spend time thinking about how to apply the contents of the book to your life, and to set up processes for doing so. Ideas alone won’t change anything*.

Reading slowly allows you to stop when you encounter new ideas, and ask:

  • How does this relate to other ideas in this book?
  • How does this relate to ideas in other books? (e.g. on reading The Righteous Mind, you might think “wow, this Elephant/Rider analogy sounds a lot like the System 1/System 2 concept in Thinking, Fast and Slow”)
  • Does this idea conflict with anything else I’ve read, or anything I already believe? Is there a way to resolve this conflict (e.g. the two ideas apply in different situations)? If not, which idea do I think is most likely to be true, and why? What might I want to read next to help me figure out which of these ideas is most likely to be right?
  • How does this change my view of the world? (or my expectations of future experiences)

This process of reading slowly integrates the new ideas in the book solidly within your existing knowledge base, by building lots of links with things you’re already familiar with.

Summarising

When I read a great book with lots of new ideas, I try to write my own brief summary of it. For a book I read on Kindle, this is really straightforward – I’ll export my highlights and notes into Evernote, and shape those into a short summary of the key ideas. I’ll usually wait at least a few weeks after finishing a book to do this, so I’ve had a chance to digest the ideas properly. Sometimes the summary will be written specifically for myself, with lots of shorthand. Other times it’s more general, like this summary of Influence by Robert Cialdini. More examples on Derek Sivers’ website.

Sometimes I don’t get around to editing my notes into a summary, but having the highlights in Evernote is still useful for easily searching through the key bits of the book later. If I read a paper version of a book, I might just put all the pictures I took of the pages into one Evernote file.

Reviewing

The last part of this process is to occasionally review or re-read your own summary. Some triggers for doing this:

  • When you read a related book. (e.g. a book with a different view on the same topic, or a book that builds on the topic)
  • When you want to apply the knowledge (e.g. re-reading notes on a negotiation book before you talk to your boss about your salary)
  • Thinking back to a book and realising you can’t remember it as clearly as you’d like

Skimming over your summary is usually sufficient. I just finished reading Superintelligence, and there were so many new concepts that I’ve started toying with the idea of adding key concepts into a spaced repetition tool like an Anki deck, and reviewing those regularly. This can be taken further by using a system like like Piotr Woźniak’s incremental reading.


*I’ve long wanted to publish a series of self help books with titles along the lines of “the simple two-step guide to improved productivity”. Step one, on page one, would be “stop reading self-help books”. Step two, on page two, would be “go and do the things you want to do”. The following two hundred pages would be blank, but there to legitimise the book and help it blend in along the other self-help books containing similar amounts of useful information.

 

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