How cool would it be to be able to just chew a stick of book gum and know the text of Moby Dick or your math textbook? But of course, book gum does not exist sadly, so what I want to do is talk about what you can do to remember what you read.
Because you can read more books, you can read them faster, but if you are not intaking the information and you’re not able to recall it and apply it later on, then what are you really reading for in the first place?
And as I see it, there are two different categories of books that we need to cover. First, there are books full of facts and concepts that you need to simply know.
Things like the mere exposure effect from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow or the definition of a caravel, which you can learn in Daniel Boorstin’s history text, The Discoverers.
The information contained in books like these is of a more academic nature. It’s less applicable to your life, you can’t use it so easily. But you still may need to know it, be it for a test down the road or simply because you want to.
So first we are going to quickly cover five specific techniques that you can use to more effectively remember the information from basically any book that you’re reading. But these are gonna be especially useful for these more academic types of books.
After that though, we are going to talk about the second category of books. These are the more actionable practical books, things like Music Theory or The Science of Cooking.
These kinds of books are actually trying to teach you something that you will use and as you may imagine, the most effective way to remember the information in these types of books is a little bit different.
But first, let’s talk about those five general reading techniques to remember what you read.
5 General reading techniques to remember what you read
So to effectively pre-read before you dig into the actual chapter, first go over the book’s table of contents, skim the chapter, look at the chapter subheadings, maybe some bullet lists, and then go to the back of the chapter.
If there are summary or review questions, review those as well. Doing this before reading has the effect of priming your brain to more readily pick out the most important information when you’re actually going through the text.
And if you want a really great example of how priming can affect your brain, just briefly close your eyes and think about a specific color. And do that for a couple of seconds.
Then once you open your eyes again, you’re gonna start noticing that color everywhere in your environment. You’ve primed your brain. And pre-reading does the exact same thing for words on a printed page.
Secondly, highlighting can be very effective but only if you do it right. See, a lot of people have the tendency of highlighting way too much when they read or going through the text and highlighting immediately instead of trying to read and understand the text first.
So as Walter Pauk points out in his book How To Study In College, read the text before you start marking it.
This has the dual effect of making sure that you’re focusing all of your attention on actually understanding what you’re reading instead of looking for sections to highlight, but it also prevents you from highlighting too much.
And this is important because the more that you highlight, the less useful those highlights are. I mean, imagine if you highlighted every single piece of text in a book. You would have essentially just changed the background color of the paper and gained nothing.
Anyway, other than that one little word of warning about highlighting, I do have one additional tip which is that it’s good to know if you are doing your highlighting on a Kindle or on a digital platform of some sort, usually your highlights go to a specific area of the app.
For example in the Kindle app, you can bring up all of your highlights for a specific book in one convenient place.
3. To remember what you read take notes after you read
Tip number three, take notes after you read. And notice that I said after you read. Now you don’t have to wait specifically until you end an entire chapter, but I think it’s good to at least read a section, try to get into it, and then go over it again and take notes on the most important details.
Now you might be asking what are the most important details? How do I know what I’m supposed to take notes on? And hopefully your pre-reading will give you a little bit of illumination in this area because you’re gonna start picking out what’s most important.
But in general, some good things to look out for including key terms which are often bolded or italicized, main points, and also examples and stories that highlight those main points. And these can often be summarized. You don’t have to take notes on them in too much detail.
Now again the length and the specific format of your notes is gonna be completely up to you and you’re gonna get better at it over time.
4. Summarize what you read
Summarize what you read after you’re done reading it. And with summaries, in particular, I think it’s good to finish an entire chapter and then go back, try to pick up the main points, maybe look at your notes, and then write a summary.
Again, you don’t want this thing to be too long, you just want it to be a very distilled version of what you read that contains the most important and salient points.
5. Seek our secondary sources that complement the book
Finally, seek out secondary sources of information that can complement what you’re reading. This has the dual benefit of building additional neural connections to the material that you’re forging through the book but it also keeps your level of interest high or could potentially boost it for topics that you’re not super interested in.
Because a lot of times, staring at a piece of a dead tree on your desk isn’t the most interesting way to learn about a topic, right? And make no mistake about it, interest is the most important ingredient to effective learning and long-term recall.
As the author, Frances Lockwood put it over 100 years ago, “In the long run the secret of study resides” in our ability to bathe our thought, our task, “our lesson in the stream of interest.” So if you can and you have time to do it, find other sources of information that can boost the level of interest you have in the topic.
Now, this could be other books but it could also be a podcast episode or a museum tour, or maybe even a video game. The reason that I still remember what a caravel is because I was actually using them in Civilization V as I read about them in The Discoverers.
How to remember what you read with practical category of books
It is now time to move on to that more practical category of books, books that are actually trying to teach you something that you will use in the future. So as you probably could have guessed, the most effective way to remember what you read in these kinds of books is to mix reading with doing. Mix the academic study with practical application.
I mean, that’s kind of the point of these kinds of books anyway, right?
Now what I want to do with this section of the article is just give you a few practical examples of how I’m putting this concept into action. And let’s start with Brian Boone’s book on music theory.
One thing you learn early on in this book is the interval patterns that define different types of scales. For example, there’s a specific interval pattern for minor scales and that differs from the one for major scales.
Now I could have just read about this. After all, it is a music theory all and the interval patterns aren’t too difficult to grasp and understand.
But to understand them better, after I read about them, I went and wrote an interval pattern down on a piece of paper at my piano, and then I spent some time picking random notes and building scales from those notes using the interval pattern.
Doing this helped me to build a more concrete understanding of how these patterns worked. It was more solid than if I had just read and tried to memorize them.
And to further solidify that mindset, I also spent some time improving within the scales that I had built.
Now regardless of what you think of this piece, it’s obviously more fun to play than just going up and down scales. And again this goes back to that quote about interest.
If you can bind what you’re learning to something that you’re more interested in like playing fun music, you’re gonna understand it and remember and recall it a lot more effectively.
For another example, let’s talk about The Code Book by Simon Singh. This book traces the entire history of cryptography, starting from very simple Caesar ciphers and scytales, going all the way up to theoretical quantum cryptography.
Now while remembering the historical details in this book would mostly entail using the techniques we’ve already talked about, the actual methods of cryptanalysis, like frequency analysis, are much better understood through practice.
And wouldn’t you know it, in the back of The Code Book, there is an entire code-breaking challenge. So while I was reading The Code Book, I also spent some time trying to work through those problems.
And interestingly as I worked through them and gained more practical experience in cryptanalysis, my interest level rose and I was able to remember the details more. Like that’s the only reason I can remember what a scytale is.
Fun little side note, that knowledge of what a scytale was actually helped me to beat an escape room recently. So if you want to get better at beating escape rooms, you may want to read The Code Book.
Alright, so we have covered a lot of information in this article but I do want to leave you with one final tip.
To to remember what you read spend some time NOT intaking new information
After you’re finished reading a chapter or a section, go for a walk, take a break, hit the gym. Take a little bit of time to refrain from intaking more information because, in this modern world, we have access to so much of it.
There are so many different sources and if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves spending literally all of our waking hours intaking information. But if you want to be able to use that information, if you be able to recall it, you can’t constantly be intaking new things.
You have to give what you’ve already read, what you’ve already taken in, time to kind of marinate, time to set itself up and actually integrate itself into your existing banks of knowledge.
So use these techniques to start learning more effectively but at the same time always keep in mind the words of the great Gabe Newell. – These things, take time.
Now earlier in the article, we talked about how exploring topics in different mediums can help you to more effectively remember what you’ve read.
And a very easy way to do that is to go out and find a documentary on the same topic you’re reading about. CuriosityStream has over 2,400 documentaries from some of the world’s best filmmakers, covering science, technology, history, and more.
So whether you’re reading about the history of the Apollo space program or the reign of Louie XIV, you’ll be able to find something there that can further expand your knowledge and interest. And if you’re looking for a place to start, I’m gonna recommend the Deep Ocean series, which is narrated by the always-excellent David Attenborough.
Or you can dig into the original series featuring Stephen Hawking, Sigourney Weaver, and Derek Muller, and you can do it from anywhere. I still find CuriosityStream on Roku, smart TVs, iOS, Android, Chromecast, and of course on the web.
Hopefully, you found something useful in this article and if you did, please share it with others. Thanks!