Advice on remembering what you read

One of the things I want to get better at is remembering more of what I read.

I read often, and I read quickly, which means that I can get through quite a lot of books in a given time. Cool.

I also like to read multiple books at once. Usually, I have anywhere from two to five nonfiction books in progress at any given time, and one or two fiction books. I don’t have an issue keeping the books sorted out mentally while I’m reading them.

But I’m not great at remembering what I read once I’ve finished (or quit reading) a book. I might remember the overall theme, or the main idea or lesson, or feeling, but I tend to get really fuzzy on the details (for fiction: character names, settings, plot points; for nonfiction: examples, applications, evidence/data, supporting points). That inability to remember is frustrating because what’s the good of reading if I’m not remembering? (I still think there’s good in it, but I’d rather capitalize on the remembering part, as well.)

So in light of this personal desire to remember more of what I read, I’ve collected some ideas and advice for how to do just that.

Mindful Reading | Patrick Rhone

I call it Mindful Reading (more slowly — the opposite of speed reading). The idea that my lack of speed actually allows me to be more present with each word and idea.

Also: write a short review of each book you read | Patrick Rhone

Impression/Association/Repetition | TRdH

A single one of these components can be enough to memorize anything. However, weaving the three components together is the most secure way to remember anything, once and for all.

Taking Notes | Jeremey DuVall

To truly benefit from the books we read, we have to read carefully, take notes, and try to apply what we’re reading to other areas of our life. Setting up a system for organizing and cataloguing what you read allows you to reflect back on the information later and get the most out of your library.

A reading, note-taking, and application system | Farnam Street

  • When you’re done the book, take out a blank sheet of paper and explain the core ideas/arguments of the book to yourself. Where you have problems, go back and review your notes. This is the Feynman Technique.
  • Put the book down for a week.
  • Pick the book back up, re-read all of your notes/highlights/marginalia/etc. Time is a good filter – what’s still important? Note this in the inside of the cover with a reference to the page number.
  • Put the notes that you want to keep in your common place book/resource.

Take it to first-hand experience | Psychotactics

Well, do what I do. I learn something. I write it down in a mindmap. I talk to my wife or clients about the concept. I write an article about it. I do an audio. And so it goes. A simple concept is never just learned. It needs to be discussed, talked, written, felt etc.

The Evernote Card System* | Sam Thomas Davies

So, three years ago, I started building a note-taking system in Evernote, one that would allow me to remember, organize and apply everything I ever read. [1]

I called it, “The Evernote Card System”.

This system has allowed me to maximize my creative output (my book summaries inspire many of my articles), identify recurring ideas from books I’ve read and most important: internalize what I’ve read.

*I’m not an Evernote user, so this system isn’t for me, but a) I like the idea of exporting Kindle highlights to a note/document you can review/revisit and b) the concept of creating a digitally based note system is good.

The Notecard System | Robert Greene, Ryan Holiday

I read a book and I take, as I’m reading it, I underline it and put notes on the side and then I go back and put them on notecards. And I can gauge a good book will generate 20 to 31 notecards. A bad book will generate two or three notecards and I will find themes in this book and I will take a book that’s maybe not organized very well and I will do the organizing. On page 30 you talk about this and you talk about it on page 180, you should have put those two together but I’m going to put those two together. And I find the themes in there and I break the book down into the gist of it, the heart of it.

Reading Journal | Joel Goldman

When you come across interesting passages and sections that leave a significant impression on you, it’s a good idea to pause and write your thoughts about it immediately. Your insights may change by the end of the book, or you may forget how that particular section made you feel. Write it down immediately. You don’t have to write formally – a sentence or two will usually suffice.

Reading Journal | SuburbanHierarchy

Coming up on the three year mark of when I began keeping track of what I was reading, I have been thinking a lot about how it has changed the way I read. As I read, I think about my impressions of the book almost as if I were constantly writing that one page review. If something catches my attention, I’ll jot it down in a notebook to put into my book journal later. My comprehension has improved dramatically, as well as the actual amount of material I have been reading. I can track when I begin to slow down, or where I did slow down in the past, and can actually keep myself on track for about a book every other week or so.

Mindmap and McDowell Grid | Josh Kaufmann

This method, which I’m dubbing the “McDowell Grid,” captures key points and personal reactions side-by-side, making it easy to quickly revisit a summary of the text and remember your thoughts about the key points at the same time.

The grid is simple: using any word processing software you like, make a table with two columns. In the first column, capture a summary of a key concept or idea from the text. In the second column, record your personal reactions, ideas, and plans to put the concept into practice.

SQ3R Technique | Northcentral University

Similar to the KWL method, the SQ3R technique also involves pre-reading and asking questions before jumping straight into the text. SQ3R stands for survey, question, read, recite and review.

7 Ways | Cameron Schaefer

Especially for some of the classics, reading the cliff notes before starting the book can provide all kids of insight into characters, themes, symbolism and author background. By reading these things beforehand you are helping ensure that you won’t miss them as you read the book. Another benefit of reading summaries is the mental debate you will have each time you reach a controversial section as you ask yourself whether you agree with the conventional interpretations.

The Question Book Method | Scott H. Young

Whenever you’re reading something that you want to remember, take notes. Except, don’t take notes which summarize the main points you want to recall. Instead, take notes which ask questions.

Absorb-Process-Review | Tammy Tseng

Immediate absorption (Step 1) has to do with input — storing what you just read or watched into your brain. Same-day processing (Step 2) deals with comprehension and analysis — reviewing the inventory and thinking more critically about why you chose to put it in storage.

Cornell Note-Taking System | Avil Beckford

In the right column of the Cornell Note-taking template, record your notes that contain key ideas from the book. In the left column, write down key words or cues, as well as any other questions you may have, insights and evaluations. At the bottom of the template, there is a third section of the template, which is where you summarize the book, reducing your notes to the most critical points.

Read – Notes – Review (Handling multiple books) | David Mansaray

Reviewing all notes before reading each chapter will do two things:  keep the information fresh in your brain and cement it  further into your mind.

I often feel as though I’ve read a book many times by the time I read the last page.

In my case, reviewing notes takes a maximum of fifteen minutes, a small price to pay for an incredible increased rate of recall.

Index of Notes and Ideas | Shawn Blanc

Shawn’s version of the “Popova Method,” or “Alternate Index.” You can hear Maria Popova and Tim Ferris discuss this in detail on this podcast episode (around the 40 minute mark).

It’s quite simple:

  1. As you’re reading a book and encounter a quote, phrase, statistic, or idea that stands out to you, then you highlight it.
  2. Now, think about the theme(s) or idea(s) that this highlight fits in to. How would you “tag” this highlight?
  3. Go to the back of the book where there will always be a few blank pages.
  4. Write down the name of the theme or idea.
  5. Write down the page number of your highlight.

Maria Popova says that “it’s an index based not on keywords, but on ideas.”