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How to Remember What You Read

How to Remember What You Read

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.

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